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.

Robinson Wordle

Peter Robinson's Leader's Speech at the DUP Conference on Saturday can be summarised in a word cloud:

Those who accuse the DUP of being an 'Ulster Nationalist' party (including, of course, this blog) will be interested to see that the two most commonly used words were 'Northern' and 'Ireland', with 'Britain' occurring even less than 'Dublin' (though 'British' outscored 'Irish'). The obsession with Sinn Féin is noticeably less than in Jim Allister's Leader's Speech a few weeks back. Just like Allister, though, Robinson made no reference whatsoever to his partners-in-government, the SDLP.

Friday 20 November 2009

Personality cult(ivation)

There are fully seven images of Peter Robinson on the DUP website today:

What are they trying to do? Do they think that Robinson has the kind of star appeal that their previous leader had? Putting all of their eggs in one basket may turn out to be a risky strategy if Robinson falters – and it gives the impression that the DUP is a one-man-band (like the TUV).

Could it be a reaction to the increasing lack of loyalty being shown by some of the other DUP front-benchers, as pointed out by Brian Feeney in the Irish News on Wednesday?

"Did you spot the gap last week? The gap in the DUP between Peter Robinson and the rest of the party’s elected representatives at Westminster and Stormont?"

In the kerfuffle about the full-time reserve no-one backed Robinson. Not a word."

"It’s noticeable that Robinson has no sidekick, never had. Last week he was conspicuously the Lone Ranger."

It seems that the reluctance of his colleagues to stand by him is being reciprocated by Robinson, who is visibly hogging the limelight on the DUP web site. Are the strains in the DUP starting to show?

Superannuated hard men

The media has reported the arrests of numerous people recently in connection with the murders of PSNI Constable Carroll, two British soldiers, and yesterday's attempted mortar attack in Armagh.

What is remarkable about many of those arrested (and in many cases, it should be noted, released without charges) is their age.

Amongst the men arrested in connection with the Constable Carroll murder were:
  • Brendan McConville, age 37
  • a 17-year-old youth
  • two men, aged 27 and 31, who were being questioned in connection with the murder were released without charge
Amongst the 14 people arrested in connection with the murders of the two British solders were:
  • Colin Duffy, age 41
  • Brian Shivers, age 44
  • Marian Price, age 55
  • A 39-year-old man from south Tyrone
And the man arrested in connection with yesterday's Armagh mortar find is 42.

During the hotter parts of the troubles the average age of activists was generally in their teens and 20s. It was relatively rare for men, or women, in their thirties or forties to be on "active service". The leaders – on both sides – were often only in their thirties.

So the very visible increase in the ages of many of the perceived activists of today is interesting. It shows that for some people in their 40s, at least, the 'war' is far from over. But it also implies that for those in the 'prime military age' the war is indeed over. The flood of young recruits that the IRA received during the 1970s and 1980s is not now being repeated for the dissidents. The only young recruit that the arrests show is the 17 year-old arrested in connection with Constable Carroll.

Despite the increasing number of young adult Catholics at present, the military urge seems to remain quite restrained amongst them, unlike amongst the smaller group of middle-aged Catholics. The implication would appear to be that the younger generation do not share the 'unfinished business' urge of their elders – in the military sense at any rate. This younger generation seems to have opted for Sinn Féin's strategy rather than that of the dissidents.

Thursday 19 November 2009

Please don't label me

The British Humanist Association is carrying out a billboard campaign to coincide with Universal Children's Day tomorrow, 20 November – the United Nations 'day of worldwide fraternity and understanding between children'. "Labelling children as if they innately "belong" to a particular religion, while ascribing incompatible beliefs to infants who "belong" to other religions, can only serve as an obstacle to understanding between children around the world" according to the humanists.

The poster can be seen on Great Victoria Street in Belfast, or for the rest of us, here:

Of course in Northern Ireland children (and even sheep) are routinely labelled as belonging to one religion or the other. The labels are tribal rather than religious, though. Few if any children have any idea what religion really is – and usually the adults doing the labelling are themselves hypocrites. Northern Ireland's religions are badges of ethno-political identity, and only a minority of adults actually adhere to the tenets of their so-called beliefs.

Nonetheless, it seems as if the humanists are a bit late to the game. Even at the time of the 2001 census many parents were declining to label their children. Look, for example at the graph below. It shows the percentage at each age group that were declared as belonging to one of the 'big three' religious groups in Northern Ireland – Catholic, 'Protestant/other Christian', and 'No religion/religion not stated' (Census table s306a). Apart from the obvious observation, that Catholics are more numerous than Protestants below the age of 27, another element stands out clearly – that below the age of 10 the proportion that are 'not labelled' increases dramatically.

Now those kids below 10 did not fill in their census forms themselves, so it is obvious that their parents are deliberately not labelling them – despite labelling themselves (look at the proportion of 'none/not stated' in the age group of the parents, i.e. between 30 and 45).

So a lot of parents in Northern Ireland – up to 25% - already did not label their kids in 2001. By 2009 this proportion has probably increased even further. Only when the results of the next census are released in about four years will we be able to see whether the unlabelled in 2001 grew up and gave themselves tribal labels, or if the trend seen in 2001 was really the start of a post-religious society.

Wednesday 18 November 2009

Perceived corruption

Transparency International (TI), the leading international non-governmental organisation dedicated to fighting corruption throughout the world, has just published its Corruption Perceptions Index 2009.

The index, illustrated by the map above, measures the perceived level of public-sector corruption in 180 countries and territories around the world. The CPI is a "survey of surveys", based on 13 different expert and business surveys.

Ireland ranks as the 14th least corrupt public sector worldwide, an improvement of 3 places. The UK ranks 17th – and drops a place. In fact the UK has been slipping for a while – 11th in 2006, 12th in 2007, 16th in 2008, 17th in 2009 – while Ireland has been climbing up the ladder.

So yet again it appears that unionists have backed a losing horse. The difference between 13th and 17th place is not enormous, of course – Ireland scored 8.0 out of 10, while the UK scored 7.7. But this is an index of perceptions, and perceptions matter in areas like public confidence, investor confidence and international relations. A low and falling score can only mean a reduced confidence in the state to treat its citizens and its businesses fairly. When countries are competing for Foreign Direct Investment – or skilled immigrants – such things matter, and if investors are looking at the longer term, the year-on-year trends are also important.

So the UK is slipping down the scale, and coming perilously close to becoming an 'also-ran' in the corruption perception stakes. It is a far cry from the mythical British belief in 'fair play'.

Business people in the north – unionist or nationalist – should be conscious of the danger, and should carefully consider the consequences. Those who continue to describe themselves as unionists should not fool themselves that it is an economically rational choice, because it isn't.

Tuesday 17 November 2009

UUP join the race to the right

The battle between the TUV and the DUP for the votes of unionist extremists is one of the constants of current Northern Irish politics. It is surprising, however, to see the UUP joining in the battle, rather than exploiting the opportunity to re-colonise the centre ground that the DUP is vacating.

One of the most obvious (and clearly sectarian) proxy battles that unionism fights against nationalism concerns the GAA. The GAA is enormously popular amongst cultural Catholics, and thus by extension amongst nationalists. GAA clubs are often the centres of social life in rural and small town life for cultural Catholics. Because of this, and because the GAA is a proudly Irish organisation, extreme unionists constantly criticise, demean, belittle and try to hinder the GAA – but entirely without success. The GAA for its part insists that it is an apolitical sporting organisation.

The GAA represents the Irish cultural community at play – nothing more and nothing less.

So it is both puzzling and disappointing to see the UUP joining in the petty criticisms of the GAA that are more normally the stock-in-trade of the DUP and its Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure, Nelson McCausland.

Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA Tom Elliott (and UUP candidate for the UCUNF ticket next year) says that there should be 'more equality and balance when it comes to the distribution of funding to GAA and soccer clubs across Northern Ireland'. He goes on to quote the amounts of money that they two sports receive from the public purse: "since 2004 the Ulster Council of the GAA and GAA clubs have received £19,911,475. By comparison, the Irish Football Association and soccer clubs have received £17,150,044", but he fails to state either how many clubs there are, or even how many players.

Worse though, than his economy with the facts, is his parroting of DUP-style prejudice against the GAA:
"GAA is an organisation which has a strong Irish nationalist ethos and attracts very few players from outside the Roman Catholic community."

"Along with this we have the GAA clubs and grounds named after Republican rerrorists and sickening displays like we witnessed at Galbally."

"Soccer is a very community orientated sport which is played by people across Northern Ireland regardless of religious or political opinion. It is true to say that both organisations and their clubs help to promote some wonderful qualities including team work, keeping fit and community spirit. However, it is extremely difficult to see how higher levels of funding for the GAA are justifiable given its limited appeal when you compare the two sports."

"I would call upon the Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure, Nelson McCausland, to look into this issue as soon as possible and work to ensure equality between the sport clubs and their governing bodies in terms of the money they receive."

Elliott's approach bears similarities with earlier calls (from John Laird, principally) for equality of funding to Irish and Ulster-Scots, despite the vast difference in the numbers of people, organisations, publications and so on. In this latter case the aim was clearly to vastly over-fund the Ulster-Scots sector, or more cynically, to try to starve the Irish language sector. In his similar calls for parity between the GAA and soccer, Elliott may well be attempting a similar exercise.

Elliott's call comes at a point in Northern Ireland's political development where his party, in conjunction with the English Tories, claim to be trying to de-sectarianise politics. This kind of call, though, with its clear call to Protestant tribal solidarity, seems to be at odds with the UCUNF project. This is, of course, not the first time that Elliott has acted against the spirit of the UCUNF project. But instead of merely being reported in the press, his current anti-GAA statements are now being featured on the UUP website – they represent, to all extents and purposes, UUP policy. This cannot therefore be seen as just another Elliott 'solo run' – it is a transposition of the dreary steeples of Mr Elliott's constituency to the wider UUP.

It seems that those who were cynical about the UCUNF non-merger when it was first announced are being proved correct. UCUNF claimed that it would offer a new type of politics, but it is now serving up more of the same old unionist tribalism.

What is surprising is that the strategists of the UUP have not noticed the yawning gap in the centre. As the DUP chase the TUV over to the wilder fringes of unionism, a large space is opening up closer to the centre – a space that includes moderate unionists, Alliance Party supporters, even some Catholics – who might be attracted to a tolerant, non-sectarian party that genuinely sought to represent everyone in Northern Ireland. By promoting the old-fashioned bigotry of people like Elliott the UUP is repelling such people, and ensuring that the UUP and its UCUNF project will not succeed. Only be reaching out to people from the cultural Catholic tradition will UCUNF have any hope of success. If it prefers to stay within its tribal comfort zone it will fail, and as the Protestant tribe diminishes proportionately its failure will help to ensure the end of Northern Ireland as a separate entity. For non-unionists this is, of course, to be welcomed, but it is a puzzle nonetheless why unionists appear to be so blind to the danger such tribalism poses to the very existence of their state.

If the UUP join the other unionists in a race to the right, they leave the centre unexploited – let alone the areas on the light green side of the divide that they desperately need to approach – especially now that the SDLP appears less capable of holding its own. It is a curious feature of Northern Irish politics that as both sides increasingly need to poach support from the centre, both sides seem to be abandoning that very centre ground. And yet at the same time the archetypal 'centre party' – Alliance – also appears incapable of capitalising on the lack of competition.

Monday 16 November 2009

The best laid schemes o' mice an' men

How many seats in the Assembly would the TUV need in order to bring about their declared objective – the inoperability of 'mandatory coalition'?

The TUV plan was set out clearly by Jim Allister on 14 November:
"It is by a sufficient number of MLAs refusing to operate mandatory coalition that it will be starved of its legitimacy and all those who claim opposition to mandatory coalition will be tested. Then, we will see the durability of mandatory coalition. I believe it will flounder and the inevitable outcome will be fresh negotiations within which a sizeable section of Unionism will not be rolling over. Once mandatory coalition is made inoperative then alternatives will kick in, because the present Stormont parties’ reliance on sustaining an Assembly is such that even those who presently declare otherwise will then accept the logic of voluntary coalition."

When Allister talks of the 'legitimacy' of the 'mandatory coalition' it is likely that he is talking about its 'legitimacy' amongst unionists only. Although he does not say it clearly, it is evident from other sources that this unionist legitimacy derives in large part from the existence of a unionist First Minister.

In order for unionism to lose the First Minister post, under the terms of the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006, if after an election to the Assembly 'the party which is the largest political party of the largest political designation is not the largest political party, any nomination to [the post of First Minister] shall instead be made by the nominating officer of the largest political party'.

So, in order for the Executive to lose its unionist legitimacy, Allister believes, his party needs simply to reduce the number of DUP seats to less than the number of Sinn Féin seats.

At present there are 36 DUP MLAs against 28 Sinn Féin MLAs. His aim is to capture at least nine DUP seats, or cause them to be lost, bringing their total to 27 or less. If UCUNF take another couple of DUP scalps then that just makes the Sinn Féin position even stronger. A resurgent SDLP does not feature in Allister's thinking, probably correctly.

Can the TUV take one quarter of the DUP's seats? So far, on the few occasions when the parties have gone head-to-head the TUV has taken around 40% of their combined vote. But these occasions are quite specific, and have involved no more than two TUV candidates – Allister himself, and Keith Harbinson in Dromore. Apart from them, the TUV has few recognisable or electable faces. Nonetheless, the TUV may well be the inheritor of the unionist tradition of voting for a donkey if it has a union jack wrapped around it, so the quality of its candidates may not matter.

In order to take nine DUP Assembly seats the TUV need to pick up one per constituency, on average, or to split the unionist vote sufficiently that fewer unionists of any stripe are elected.

As things look at the present, such a scenario is possible. The TUV itself could, on a good day, pick up at least seven DUP seats (one each in East and North Belfast, East and North Antrim, East Derry, Lagan Valley and Strangford), while another seat could fall to the UUP (Fermanagh and South Tyrone), and two to nationalists (Foyle and Newry and Armagh). This would leave the party strengths (ceteris paribus) at: DUP 26, UUP 19, TUV 7, PUP 1 versus Sinn Féin 29, SDLP 17, and Alliance/others at 9. Sinn Féin as largest party would nominate the First Minister, and, in Allister's plan, the unionists would walk out en bloc.

Allister's plan requires the DUP to refuse to nominate for the Deputy First Minister post – and on this he is probably right. But it then requires Sinn Féin to "accept the logic of voluntary coalition" and rule themselves out of power until such time as unionists decide they are sufficiently 'house-trained' (i.e. never, as Allister himself believes ("TUV will never enter government with Sinn Fein"). This is where Allister's plan starts to part company with common sense.

The Westminster elections next year will act as a dry run for the TUV. Since the constituencies are the same for Westminster and the Assembly, the party's performance next year will allow an accurate prediction of its prospects in 2011 to be made. If the TUV does well in 2010, then the planning for what to do in 2011 when the Executive collapses can already begin. If the TUV do badly in 2010, then the Executive may stagger on until its next crisis.

Death of Ignatius Fox, SDLP Councillor in Craigavon

On Saturday 14 November Portadown SDLP councillor Ignatius Fox died. Portadown is an electoral area in Craigavon Borough which Councillor Fox has represented since 1985.

His death brings to two the number of vacancies on Craigavon Borough Council – the other being the seat vacated by the TUV's Mark Russell, and that was (and remains) the subject of a squabble between the unionist parties.

Fox's seat is in an electoral area that is 67.6% unionist, and thus in a by-election it would undoubtedly be picked up by a unionist candidate – most likely the DUP who polled 42.5% in 2005. Here though, as everywhere, the looming threat of the TUV could cause some sleepless nights for the DUP. But the future threat posed by the TUV was already present in 2005, when a number of independent unionists, including David Jones who was elected, polled over 10% of the vote in Portadown. The TUV could count on this 10% as a base upon which to build – though whether it could overcome the DUP's commanding lead in the area is unlikely.

The UUP used to be the largest unionist party in the district, losing their lead to the DUP only in 2001. They may still harbour ambitions to regain that lead, but they are unlikely to be confident enough to test the waters so close to a Westminster election, as a set-back could have a significant psychological impact.

It is customary, but not universal, that deaths of sitting councillors are filled through co-option. While Councillor Fox was well regarded, it would require some restraint by the unionist parties, especially the DUP, to allow such a co-option in a majority unionist district. The ill feeling created by the non-co-option of David Calvert in Lurgan, on the eastern side of the borough, may have one of two effects. Either the other unionist parties will not provoke an election for fear that the DUP will win it, or they will insist on an election in the faint hope that they could embarrass the DUP yet again. Given the fairly commanding DUP lead in the district in 2005 it is likely to be the first option.

Only two outcomes are likely, therefore. An SDLP co-option, or an opportunist by-election forced by the DUP.

Friday 13 November 2009

Little boys' politics

The sheer childishness of the squabbling between the various unionist parties provokes mixed feelings amongst many non-unionists. From the sidelines non-unionists watch with feelings ranging from horror, through disappointment, disbelief and head-shaking disapproval, to occasional amusement, as the DUP, TUV and UUP trade play-ground insults.

From the UUP we have seen a website devoted to telling the DUP that their 'pants are on fire'. From the TUV we get silly jokes about the DUP suffering from TUVitis. And now, outdoing the others in sheer childishness, we get a pathetic DUP video on Youtube trying to ridicule the TUV.

This kind of thing is unfortunately common amongst children – sometimes even amongst less mature students – but to see supposedly mature adult parties reducing themselves to this level is quite sad.

Unionism as a movement seems to be degenerating into a number of playground gangs exchanging taunts and insults. Evidence of serious thinking is largely lacking. This kind of degeneration was to be expected during direct rule, when no party had access to real power and so had no incentive to develop policies. But since 2007 Northern Ireland has had an Assembly and an Executive. The parties have had ample time to adjust to that reality, and to start acting like serious politicians. That they haven't done so should profoundly worry ordinary unionists. Facing demographic decline and a real existentialist threat, the best their political leaders can come up with is childishness. If ever ordinary unionists needed to be reminded of the basic failure of their state, a close look at their own parties should suffice.

Unionist parties appear incapable of practicing real politics – much less actually governing in the interests of all. Their failures simply serve to remind us all that unionism is not a real political movement – it is simply the manifestation of a reactionary sectarianism that has no place in the modern world. It and its bastard offspring – Northern Ireland – should be consigned to the history books.

Supercouncils plan on the rocks

Good. Kill the plans now, and start again.

Minister Poots has warned that failure to agree the boundaries of the new councils could mean he may not get the necessary legislation through by the end of this year, and there is speculation that this could push the NIO into calling elections for the existing councils in 2010 (as would have happened in the absence of agreement on the new councils).

The planned boundaries of the new councils are illogical and impractical – and in some cases sentence nationalist areas to perpetual unionist domination. Anything that forces a rethink can only be good.

What possible administrative logic is served by combining Newry and Mourne with Down district? It would form a ridiculous crescent stretching from Crossmaglen up to the outer fringes of Belfast!

The obsession with keeping the current district boundaries (why?) means that the Clogher valley sticks like a redundant appendage into the new Fermanagh-Omagh council. The Clogher valley should be part of Fermanagh-Omagh, not the Mid-Ulster council.

And no nationalist should ever agree with Limavady being forced into the Causeway Coast council, with its political domination by the unionists of Coleraine and North Antrim.

There are numerous other small boundaries that should be changed, and several major decisions that need to be reversed.

Whether there were to be 7, 11 or 15 councils, the objective should have been to draw boundaries that maximised the efficiency of the councils. An equally important objective should have been to ensure that areas had councils that they felt comfortable with – if this looked like de facto repartition, then so be it. Unless there are cast-iron guarantees of equality, cultural respect, proportionate appointments, and the de-politicisation of council business, no nationalist area should be placed under the control of unionists where possible. Does anyone really think that Causeway Cost council would agree to, for example, bi-lingual letterheads (as in Limavady now), or bi-lingual street signs? Tokenism, you might say – but keenly indicative of a mindset too common in unionism.

Stop the plans now, and completely re-draw the boundaries before going any further.

Thursday 12 November 2009

SDLP – a sad sight

Fionnuala O'Connor delivers a hard message on the SDLP and its leadership race in today's Irish Times, with this conclusion:
"For some older Northern nationalists, the SDLP’s descent is still demoralising, even shocking. Peace though was made against a backdrop of a Catholic community which had achieved pretty much all to which it aspired. Now, many look at the SDLP and ask what is it for. Many unionists unable to so much as voice the word “power- sharing” may drag their feet for years yet, before fully accepting the idea of equality. Society has changed despite them.

Sinn Féin may be in an awkward position at the minute, ambitions slapped down at least temporarily in the Republic, powerless to overcome DUP stonewalling. Yet electorally in the North, as the SDLP ages and sinks, it has a clear field and is only likely to get stronger rather than weaker.

Meanwhile the SDLP is pushed to choose the hapless Durkan’s successor from a very modest pool of 15 MLAs, among whom there is not a single obvious leader.

It is a sad sight. A party once of political stars and political strength today lacks both."

Coming so soon after the official launch of Margaret Ritchie's campaign for the SDLP leadership, this is a vote of no confidence whatsoever in her – but also in Alasdair McDonnell, her rival. Neither, according to Fionnuala O'Connor, are 'obvious leaders'.

The SDLP faces into a leadership election without the confidence of one of its principal southern cheerleaders – the Irish Times – and then shortly afterwards into an election campaign under the leadership of a weak and 'unobvious' leader, whoever that is.

Sad times indeed for the SDLP. The party needs to wake up and reconnect with the new political realities. It is clearly at serious risk of being an also-ran in Northern politics – a footnote in the history books of the future.

A first step towards rediscovering its relevance would be to decide whether it is a socialist party or a catholic conservative party. In either case it should then proceed to establishing formal links – even a merger – with the relevant party in the south. A socialist SDLP should merge with Labour to form an all-Ireland Labour or Social Democrat party. A catholic conservative party should merge with Fianna Fáil.

In reality, of course, the SDLP is both socialist and catholic conservative in parts. But this combination does not work, so the party may need to be broken up and the two tendencies could then separately join with their southern sister parties. New stronger all-Ireland parties could absorb other smaller parties, groups and individuals supportive of their positions and policies.

Out of the death of the SDLP a new and better political landscape could emerge. But as long as the SDLP clings to life it will not happen. All the more reason to put it out of its misery quickly. Another poor leader – Ritchie or McDonnell – will not help it.

Wednesday 11 November 2009

A cold winter?

Martin McGuinness at today's press conference following the North-South Ministerial Council meeting:
"What absolutely is an imperative is to have an agreement on the transfer of power, and a date for the transfer of power, before Christmas.

I have to say if it slips past Christmas we are in deep trouble."

Deep trouble in January translates into Executive stalemate, because the DUP could not afford the repercussions of an agreement on the transfer in the imminent Westminster elections.

But Executive stalemate could translate into a resignation by McGuinness, triggering almost certain elections to the Assembly – one result of which could be that McGuinness is returned as First Minister, leading in its turn to a unionist refusal to participate in the Executive, and thus a highly uncertain future for Northern Ireland.

The DUP's footdragging on the transfer of policing and justice was always likely to lead to trouble in the end. It seems, though, that the timing of the inevitable crisis may have been micro-managed by Sinn Féin to ensure that it falls at a time that causes most difficulty to the DUP.

Caught between a grand coalition of nationalism and all external opinion on one side, and the backwoodsmen of the extreme unionist fringes on the other, the DUP has acted like a rabbit in the headlights – unable to go forward, unable to go backward – and, like the poor rabbit, it may end up as roadkill. Nobody will feel sorry for the DUP if this happens.

Poppy fascism – the evidence from Google

True, Google is not (yet) the master of the universe, but it represents a significant share of the cyber-universe. One of its little gimmicks is to 'decorate' its on-screen logo with items relevant to the day or season – hence snowmen at Christmas, shamrocks on St Patrick's day, and so on.

It is interesting, therefore, to look at the Google logos in various 'national versions' today – 11 November – 'armistice day'. The poppy fascists of the British establishment, and their supporters, often claim that the poppy is some sort of international symbol and that the refusal by Irish people to display it is somehow out of kink with 'civilised society'.

Here, then is today's Google UK logo, complete with poppy:
But in other parts of the British Empire – the areas claimed by some as loyal poppy-wearing territories, the poppy is largely absent. [NB all screenshots were captured on 11 November 2009]

New Zealand:


Only in Canada does Google consider the poppy to be worth adding to their page (but not the actual logo):

In less loyal ex-colonies the British symbolism is entirely lacking.

And amongst the other countries directly (and much more devastatingly) involved in the First World War, no sign of poppies can be found.

The evidence from Google, therefore, is that the poppy is not a universal symbol, or even a symbol common to participants in the first or second world wars – it is a symbol only of Britain and Canada. Attempts to browbeat Irish people into wearing it are dishonest and political, and must be treated with due contempt.

Tuesday 10 November 2009

Kindergarten economics

The intellectual poverty of Northern Irish politics was well illustrated today by two almost simultaneous news releases.

Firstly, international consultants Ernst and Young released a highly negative report on the economic performance and prospects for Ireland, north and south. The report and its accompanying press release state that:

"The Island of Ireland economy will shrink by 6.7% in 2009 – revised down from 7.8% - with Northern Ireland (NI) experiencing the worst economic contraction on record for this period."

"A range of challenges remain which according to the forecast risk the possibility of a ‘double dip’ recession, with real recovery for both the Republic of Ireland (ROI) and NI still 12 -24 months away."

"NI decline has intensified since the spring forecast, contracting at its highest levels on record, with GDP forecast to decline by 4.3% in 2009 down from 2.9% in May."

"NI’s economic outlook has weakened on the back of disappointing labour market

Clearly such economic challenges demand a robust and mature response from the political system.

But the second news release shows just how far from maturity in economic issues some of Northern Ireland's political parties are. The TUV yesterday published the its conference speech on the economy. It was presented by a student, and contained precisely zero economic maturity – or even economic policy, beyond vague and meaningless chatter about a 'loyal economy' and a 'moral economy'. Some quotes:

"The TUV wants to work to develop the knowledge economy. On their website SF state ..."

"We will work to reduce the bureaucracy and red tape. We will work to develop meaningful infrastructure free from a warped political ideology. While Sinn Fein advance a system of roads to link Northern Ireland with the economically ravaged Republic of Ireland ..."

"Conference when it comes to the economy the TUV is the trusted and united voice for our Farmers, for our Fishermen, for our small businesses and for the PMS savers. Conference it is time to deliver for the Northern Ireland economy."

It seems that the TUV sees everything through Sinn Féin tinted glasses. They have no policies at all, and no ideas about what might, could or should be done to improve the quality of life for all in Northern Ireland.

One suggestion, illustrated nicely by a graph in the Ernst and Young report, is that Northern Ireland could loosen its ties with the UK, and reunite with the south. The TUV may think that it is "economically ravaged", but hard economic reality says otherwise. By 2020 the Gross Value Added (per capita) of the north will be barely half of the per capita GDP of the south:

Monday 9 November 2009

The nuclear option

Nuclear power stations are always a hot political issue. In a place that can exploit even the conflict in the Middle East to decorate its petty grievances, it is no surprise that attitudes to nuclear energy are also somewhat tribal – most nationalist politicians, both nationalist parties and many nationalist voters are opposed to nuclear energy, while unionists are often agnostic or moderately in favour. Perhaps each tribe is mimicking the behaviour of its ‘mother country’ – the south has no nuclear power stations, while Britain has lots.

Today the British government formally announced that it has approved 10 sites in England and Wales for new nuclear power stations, but none in either Scotland or Northern Ireland. The absence of Scotland is explainable, as the SNP government is opposed. But why is Northern Ireland excluded?

In the past such an exclusion would have seemed normal, as the security of such a high-profile economic target would have placed enormous burdens on the police and British army. But in 2009 such considerations have less validity.

The exclusion of Northern Ireland was originally signalled by Peter Hain, then British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, in 2006 (nuclear energy is a reserved matter – i.e. power over it was kept in Westminster, and not transferred to Stormont). His reasoning was interesting, to say the least:
"There are no plans to build any nuclear power stations in Northern Ireland - that is the view I have taken as secretary of state. It's also part of an understanding we have with the Irish government, who are opposed to any new nuclear build on the whole island of Ireland. That means that we have to go very strongly and progressively for green, clean, renewable energy, which is what we will be doing."

That the Dublin government has a veto on the building of nuclear power stations in Northern Ireland should ring alarm bells for unionists. Surely, they might argue, such matters are of no concern for Dublin – but obviously London thinks that such issues are very much Dublin’s concern. Why? Could it be that nuclear power stations are by nature very long-term investments, and may still be operating in 50 years?

Perhaps London’s decision on nuclear energy in Northern Ireland was taken in the expectation that long before any nuclear power station would have re-paid its investment, it would have new owners?

Allister's speech as a word-cloud

Wordle is a fun tool to play with, and though it makes no claims to profound analysis, it can throw up a few visual surprises.

Not so in the case of Jim Allister's speech to the TUV conference last Saturday, though. The Wordle (or 'word cloud') of his speech shows up his obsessions:
Anyone looking for real-world politics in Allister's speech will need good eyesight. Yes, the word 'education' is there, but only as part of a criticism of … you guessed it, Sinn Féin. The rest of the speech demonstrates his continuing obsession with the power-sharing governmental arrangements in Northern Ireland.

The words 'Sinn Féin' appear 38 times; DUP a mere 18 times; but the UUP (remember them?) is mentioned only once. The SDLP are entirely absent from Allister's thoughts. Peter (Robinson) is mentioned 13 times, and (Martin) McGuinness 10 times – though they seem to be quite chuckly about him, because three of his references are as 'Marty'.

A similar Wordle can be done with the other TUV conference speeches. Here, for example, is the Wordle of the speech of Party President William Ross:

It is more clearly focussed on political processes and structures, as a party president's speech should be, and clearly less obsessed with Jim Allister's obsessions – Sinn Féin and the DUP.

It will be interesting to see whether the TUV continues to dance to Allister's slightly obsessive tune, or if more mature and diverse voices start to be heard in the run-up to next year's election. At some stage, if they are serious about politics, the TUV might start to add actual policies to their speeches.

Sunday 8 November 2009

The sheep win

Well, it has been almost three days since the story broke, so even the slowest of party spokes(wo)men have had time to catch up, and it is with regret that this blog must inform its readership from the Catholic community that, in the eyes of their unionist neighbours, they are less important than sheep.


In vain this blog has searched for public condemnation by unionist politicians and parties of the clear threat to a human being (of the Catholic persuasion) in Ballymoney on Friday morning.


The UUP were quick to condemn the sheep-painting, but are silent on car destruction.

The DUP are silent on both issues – the owner of the sheep was obviously not one of their members or supporters.

The TUV condemn the “sectarian attack” on the sheep (if only victims of unionist sectarianism had suffered only from paint, rather than bullets), but say nothing about the Ballymoney attack, despite it being in Jim Allister’s own area of North Antrim.

Protestant victims campaigner, Willie Frazer, was first out of the blocks to condemn the trauma the sheep suffered – including, apparently, not just being painted green and orange (nature provided the white), but also red, the colour of the Tyrone GAA team. FAIR, Frazer’s vehicle, claims to be a “non-sectarian, non-political organisation to work in the interests of the innocent victims of terrorism in South Armagh” – but extended its interest as far as east Tyrone in the case of the sheep, but not as far north as Ballymoney for a human.

So, dear readers, sleep less easy in your beds. Mere sheep matter more to unionism than you do.

Unionists, hang your heads in shame.

TUV Conference

Courtesy of UTV, the profile of the TUV – as represented at its annual conference – is a bit clearer. The conference, which appeared to have attracted between 120 and 50 people (8 or 9 rows of chairs, with around 16 per row), most of whom are middle-aged (or older) men, along with a few equally middle-aged women:

There were at least a handful of people under 40 present – but only a handful:

Evidence of a youth wing is totally lacking. It seems that time and mortality will bring about the demise of the TUV rather sooner than most of the other parties.

Jim Allister’s speech to the conference was a repetition of his anti-DUP bluster of the past two years, but its constant repetition coming into the run-up to next year’s Westminster election can only add to the DUP’s gloom. There now appears to be no question that the fight within unionism will be three-sided – perhaps to nationalism’s advantage. A divided unionism is a weakened unionism, and for that (if nothing else) nationalists can only thank Jim Allister.

Friday 6 November 2009

Four legs good, two legs bad?

On 3 November the News Letter reported that "sheep belonging to a Protestant farmer in Tyrone have been painted in the colours of the Irish tricolour as part of an ongoing campaign of intimidation", giving rise to a considerable amount of sheep-relating joking in the media, blogs, and everywhere else.

But across the unionist spectrum politicians lined up to condemn the prank.

Willie Frazer, from the Protestant victims group FAIR, condemned the prank, and said that it was "a clear warning to the isolated Protestant farmer".

UUP MLA Billy Armstrong condemned the attack for raising tensions in "an area where Protestants and Roman Catholics live side by side". "This was a sectarian attack and Halloween prank," he said.

Today, though, UTV reports that a human being has had his car destroyed in a suspected sectarian attack. But that human being was a Catholic (or was perceived to be one) – so it will be interesting to see if his case receives as much attention from the likes of Frazer and the UUP as the 'protestant' sheep did.

It would represent a new low for unionism if Catholic victims are placed lower than sheep in their hierarchy of victims.

An amazing admission

Despite being on its website for barely a few hours, the TUV's slur against the Irish language was seen by many people (and can still be seen, courtesy of the cached version on Google).

Now, in an unprecedented move the TUV vice-chaiman has publicly apologised for the insult:

"Traditional Unionist Voice has apologised for its "childishness" after issuing a statement describing Irish as a "leprechaun language".

The statement was issued under the name of TUV vice-chairman Keith Harbinson and condemned the Department of Education for "wasting" money on Irish.

However after being distributed to the media, the press release on the party's website was changed to remove the term.

A spokesman told the BBC the original words were a "childish mistake"."
The TUV's own website calls the apology a 'correction' in its title, however, and goes on to say:
"TUV would like to clarify that a statement mounted on the party’s website included the wrong headline. This was not the headline agreed with the author of the statement.

TUV apologies for any offence caused."

Apparently, the 'leprechaun' term "had been added to the press release by an employee of the party". That narrows things down quite a bit, as the TUV party staff could probably fit in a Smart car – especially if close personal relatives of Allister himself are excluded.

This blog wondered why the title had been changed so quickly, from 'TUV Blast Leprechaun Language Waste' to 'TUV Blast Irish Language Waste'. One of the possible reasons was 'guilt at being nasty' – and perhaps that was it.

But perhaps also the TUV has realised that playground insults will only get you a certain distance in politics, and they wants to go further.

Could this be the first indication that the TUV is going to try to position itself as a serious grown-up party, rather than just a reactionary thorn in the DUP's side?

Wednesday 4 November 2009

No comment

Electoral registration

The Report of the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland for 2008-2009 (bizarrely the Electoral Office year runs from 1 April to 31 March) was published on 29 October.

Though largely dealing with administrative matters, it also contains some nuggets of information that are relevant to the future 'community' shape of the electorate, and thus probably the voters too.

For example:

"The new register published on 1 December 2008 showed a net increase of 16,568 in the electorate compared with the register published on 3 December 2007. By 31 March 2009 there had been a further net increase of 11,681 individuals, largely due to the “Schools Initiative” […] bringing the total electorate to 1,154,228."

So, over a 16 month period 28,249 new voters were added to the register – the majority of them probably young people reaching the age of 18. And we know that the majority of these people are Catholic by community identification.

At the same time the Report notes that:
"During the year 11,818 deceased persons were removed from the electoral register."
And we also know that these deceased persons were likely to have been 65% Protestant and 35% Catholic by community identification.

Taking the two figures together, it is therefore likely that 21,187 young people are added to the register every year (the 28,249 cited above was for 16 months, bear in mind), and 11,818 deceased persons drop out of the register.

The 21,187 young people break down as 11,229 'Catholic community' and 9,958 'Protestant community' (ignoring for the purposes of simplicity the fact that some on both sides are irreligious or atheist, and assuming a 53%/47% split). The old people break down as 7,682 'Protestant community' and 4,136 'Catholic community'.

So the 'Protestant community' gains 2,276 net new potential voters. The 'Catholic community' gains 7,093 net new potential voters. This translates into a relative increase of 4,816 in the 'Catholic community' electorate every year.

Of course not all electors vote – generally the turn-out rate is around 62% (61.9% in 2007, 61.6% in the local elections in 2005, 62.9% in the 2005 Westminster election). So every year the relative increase in Catholic community voters should be around 3,000. But since old people have a higher turn-out rate than the young, the real loss to the 'Protestant community' may be higher. If the turn-out rate of old people is 80%, and that of young people is 50%, the 'Protestant community' actually loses voters, at a rate of 1,166 every year, while the 'Catholic community' gains 2,306 – giving a net advantage of 3,472 per year to the 'Catholic community':

Needless to say, these figures are just statistical calculations – there are a number of variables that they cannot take into account: changes in turn-out rates, emigration of young people (including the 'Protestant brain drain'), immigrants, and so on. And of course, nominal religions may not always correspond precisely with political preference. However, in most cases the evidence points to a very close correlation between religion and politics.

If the correlation remains close, we can estimate that the net gain to nationalism per year is in the region of 3,000 to 3,500. Unionism was ahead of nationalism by 42,000 in 2007 – if it is losing 3,500 of that lead every year it has barely 12 years left before it is overtaken. Even if the lower estimate (3,000) is used, the time left to unionism is only 14 years.

Project Ulster is into its last generation – the sooner unionism realises it and starts to negotiate a future for itself within a re-united Ireland, the better its future. Refusing to acknowledge the elephant in the living room will leave unionism in a weak position in 12 or 14 years!

Triangular war

There is nothing this blog enjoys more than watching unionists tearing each other to bits. Only nationalism can gain from inter-unionist bickering, so the more of it the better.

The sordid affair of the non-cooption of David Calvert to Craigavon council on Monday has lead to a classic three-way argument between the UUP, the DUP and the TUV, with each party blaming the other two.

The TUV, as the 'wronged' party (who thought they had a deal with the DUP … when will people learn?), claim that:
"… the DUP and UUP have forced a by-election in Craigavon, which will cost the ratepayers tens of thousands of pounds. This TUV vacancy ought to have been filled by a TUV co-option, but the DUP welched on its agreement not to oppose a TUV co-option by proposing their own candidate. Our good faith in not forcing a by-election in Ballymoney has been shamelessly exploited. Sadly, even in local government it seems the DUP is not to be trusted."

The DUP countered this with a Jesuitical reply which tried to pass the buck to the UUP:
"1. The DUP did not oppose the co-option of David Calvert to Craigavon Borough Council – the same cannot be said of members of his own TUV party.

2. When the TUV candidate failed to secure a seconder, that proposal fell.

3. His proposer, independent councillor David Jones, then supported our subsequent suggestion of an independent, non-party aligned local community worker to fill the position in an effort to save rate-payers the cost of a by-election.

4. Our suggestion of an independent community activist was rejected by the UUP who put forward the name of prospective UCUNF parliamentary candidate Harry Hamilton.

5. The UUP forced the by-election and have landed the rate-payers of Craigavon with costs of between £25,000 and £30,000 to pay for this.

It is a disgraceful lie to attempt to blame any member of the DUP for this situation. We have behaved with honesty and in a spirit of co-operation throughout this process. We said we wouldn’t oppose David Calvert and we didn’t. When he failed to get through we then suggested an independent non-party person. It is unfortunate that the UUP should have sought to steal a council seat that they never held by rejecting our offer.

I am particularly disappointed that our constructive suggestion of co-opting an independent community activist was rejected by the UUP."
And the UUP, who allowed themselves to be drawn into the squabble, said that:
"The deal done between the DUP and TUV earlier this year was hailed at the time as a solution to avoid two by-elections saving the public purse approximately £25,000 in each case. In Ballymoney things went through in the summer without a problem, but in Craigavon last night things were different.

When the TUV nomination was proposed on Monday night, there was nobody to second the proposal. Why was this? UUP understands that the DUP even approached Sinn Fein to get them to second the TUV proposal! How could such a thing happen if there was supposed to be a deal between DUP and TUV?

Looking at the sequence of events, when Traditional Unionist Mark Russell stepped down from his seat, the DUP failed to agree the candidate proposed and then went one further by adding a new name to the pot - Bruce Kidd. The result - a by-election - and it is only for this reason that the UUP has added their name to the race.

Commenting on the issue, UUP leader on Craigavon Borough Council, Councillor Ken Twyble said; "The much trumpeted deal between the DUP and TUV to fill Council vacancies in Ballymoney and Craigavon has now collapsed as the TUV failed to have their candidate for the Craigavon vacancy returned due to the lack of a seconder! It would appear therefore that the DUP failed to keep their word and are once again trying to dictate terms just like they did in Dromore.

I want to make it clear that the UUP was never part of a deal, but it appears that the DUP were not prepared to second the TUV nominee despite the deal; however we understand that the DUP even approached Sinn Fein to see if they would second the TUV candidate!

Now that we are facing a by-election the UUP will select a candidate - and we hope to win and add to the service provided by the party in the Craigavon area."
No party comes out of this with much honour – the TUV, though technically correct, proposed a candidate that nobody wanted – a man disliked (apparently) even within his own party. The DUP clearly failed to live up to the implied deal – though, of course, they "did not oppose the co-option of David Calvert" – a response that the most slippery of politicians would be embarrassed to utter. And the UUP acted entirely in their own interest, while annoying both the other unionist parties.

All three ended up in a sulk, and not talking to each other. Excellent result.

Fight for the right …

… to partaaaay? No, fight for the right wing.

The TUV have obviously decided to engage the enemy, but on their own turf – the extreme right wing of unionism. As this blog pointed out on 29 October, the DUP, despite having been in a position of power and dominating the unionist end of the spectrum, appears to have moved further right-wards in an attempt to counter the threat from the TUV, and thereby alienating themselves from more moderate unionist opinion.

The TUV, comfortable in their extreme position, appear to be accentuating their über-unionist credentials, either in respone to the DUP, or as a taunt to them.

Today, for example, the TUV have released a press release specifically mimicking the DUP's previous insults against the Irish language – TUV Blast Leprechaun Language Waste – using language that, while it will annoy Irish speakers and supporters, is not actually aimed at them. The TUV's unsubtle message is aimed at the DUP, and it says 'we're more extreme than you, and we can prove it by using language that you are now more circumspect about'.

The battle for the extreme right wing of unionism is continuing. It may, with luck, lead to a pyrrhic victory for one or other side.


During the course of the day the TUV changed the title of their press release. In the morning it was 'TUV Blast Leprechaun Language Waste', but by the evening it had become 'TUV Blast Irish Language Waste'.

What does this signify? A softening of TUV bile against the language? Is the TUV getting in touch with its softer side? Guilt at being nasty?

Tuesday 3 November 2009

By-election in Craigavon will impact on Upper Bann

The deal that had apparently been agreed between the TUV and the DUP in August to avoid by-elections in Ballymoney and Craigavon has come unstuck. Unfortunately for the TUV, the deal came unstuck after they had kept their part of the arrangement, by not opposing the co-option of the DUP's Robert Halliday to the vacant seat in Ballymoney. The DUP broke the deal, by failing to second the proposal to co-opt the TUV's David Calvert (an ex-DUP defector to the TUV) to replace Mark Russell (another ex-DUP defector to the TUV) in Craigavon, and by proposing another candidate, the politically-independent community worker Bruce Kidd.

The UUP also proposed a candidate for co-option, the novelty candidate Harry Hamilton, better known as a Freddie Mercury impersonator. The UUP opposed the co-option of Kidd, and the DUP returned the compliment by opposing Hamilton. "This was payback by the UUP for the DUP's refusal of a co-option in Dromore last year," said SDLP MLA Dolores Kelly.

A by-election will therefore have to take place in Craigavon, probably early in 2010.

"Our good faith in not forcing a by-election in Ballymoney has been shamelessly exploited", said Jim Allister.

"Our deal with Jim was that we would not oppose the co-option and we did not. However if his party's nominee was unable, on two occasions, to gain a seconder within the council he can hardly blame the DUP - he should be asking why Mr Calvert was unable to gain that support", retorted the DUP.

The breaking of the deal will, of course, add greatly to the ill-feeling between the TUV and the DUP, and will increase the probability that the TUV will stand against the DUP in key constituencies in the Westminster elections in 2010. The Craigavon by-election will provide an interesting snap-shot of the relative strengths of the two parties (and indeed, the others too). Party strategists will pore over the results to see if the TUV continues to pose a threat to the DUP, and if the rivalry between the two parties can be exploited successfully by other parties.

The vacancy is in the Lurgan electoral area of Craigavon district council. In the most recent election (2005) the area was 84.5% unionist, so there is little hope of a nationalist victory, even with a three-way split amongst the unionists. In 2005 the DUP and the UUP were neck-and-neck – the UUP got 40.2% of the votes, and the DUP 39.4%. But then came the TUV, and some of the DUP's vote has undoubtedly been lost (along with, of course, its elected councillor, Mark Russell).

In the few previous occasions when the two parties have competed – the (in)famous Dromore by-election in February 2008, and the European Parliament elections in June 2009, the TUV has taken around 40% of the combined TUV-DUP vote.

In the case of Lurgan, if the TUV continue to attract a similar proportion of disgruntled ex-DUP voters they could take around 23% of the vote – 16% directly from the DUP, in addition to the 6.4% that Calvert received, standing then as an independent. But since nationalist turnout will be low, as there is no possibility of a nationalist win, the real out-turn in a by-election would be slightly different. In the absence of many nationalist voters the TUV could attract up to 25% of the votes polled – very close to the proportion that the DUP might poll.

The result of the by-election will, in all likelihood, be like two bald men fighting over a comb (as so many of the DUP-TUV spats seem to be) – the UUP will happily watch its two extreme-unionist competitors tearing each other to pieces, and will quietly pick up the seat – its 40% of the vote in 2005 will not be affected by the squabbling to its right, and it will crow that its victory is a vindication of its UCUNF link-up with the Tories, even though this will play little part in its victory.

The victory of the UUP will give it added momentum in the Upper Bann constituency in the run-up to the Westminster elections (Craigavon forms a large part of the Upper Bann constituency). This seat (Trimble's old seat) is one that they would dearly like to win back, and with the help of the TUV they may well get their wish.

Expect a by-election result somewhere in the region of: UUP 45% (to take the seat), DUP 26%, TUV 25%, SDLP/SF 4%. Unless the two extreme-unionist parties patch up their differences, this may also seriously affect* the outcome in the Westminster election in Upper Bann.

[* = altered text (thanks Bangordub)]