Monday 26 January 2009

The Curious Case of the Eleven Councils

The Review of Public Administration examined a number of different options for the geographic amalgamation of Northern Ireland's current 26 districts into a smaller, and more efficient, number. In 2005, on the basis of the research presented, the British direct rule Minister announced that the optimum number was seven. The proposal was welcomed by, amongst others, INVEST NI and Sinn Féin. It was opposed, however, by the other three big political parties. Sinn Féin felt that the seven council model would 'deliver savings to ratepayers and will guarantee an equal rates burden across Northern Ireland,' and 'ensure minority rights because in each area the minority community, be it nationalist or unionist, will constitute at least 25% of the population'.

The issue became a political football around at the time of the restoration of the Executive in 2007, with Sinn Féin strongly defending its position. However, barely a year later, Sinn Féin simply abandoned their position, and agreed with a DUP proposal to promote an eleven council model. As reported by the BBC:

"The Stormont Executive has agreed a plan to cut Northern Ireland's local authorities from 26 to 11 by 2011. The DUP and Sinn Fein said the compromise plan, passed by seven votes to two, would build a firm foundation for strong local government. It creates four nationalist-dominated councils in the west and south, and six predominantly unionist councils in the north, east and centre. The UUP was the only party in the Executive to oppose the plan."

Sinn Féin could have blocked the change to the 11-Council model, by insisting on a cross-community vote. But they did not, and acquiesced to the DUP's proposal. By so doing, they actually reduced both the area and the population of the districts that would have come under nationalist control, and consigned a greater number of nationalists to life under unionist political domination. The dividing line between the 'green' west and the 'orange' east would have been a line from Dundrum Bay to Magilligan Point.

The Seven Council Proposal:

Under the original 7-Council model there would have been three districts with nationalist majorities, three with unionist majorities, and one – Belfast – where neither block would have a clear majority. On the basis of the 2005 local election results, some 62,000 nationalist voters would have found themselves in unionist-majority districts, and some 120,000 unionists would have found themselves in nationalist-controlled areas.

By agreeing to the 11-Council model, Sinn Féin (and the SDLP, it should be said) has ensured that Armagh, Banbridge, Craigavon and Limavady fall under unionist control, when they would have been nationalist controlled under the 7-Council model. The only 'gain' for nationalism is Down district, which would have been unionist-dominated in the 7-Council model, but joins with nationalist Newry in the 11-Council alternative. Under the 11-Council model the number of nationalist voters living under unionist control would increase to 83,000. The number of unionists under nationalists would, however, fall to 76,000.

The Eleven Council Proposal:

In terms of the total numbers of voters (unionist and nationalist) living in areas controlled by the opposite persuasion, the 11-Council model is better – 160,000 as against 180,000 in the 7-Council model. But the balance within these groups is more favourable to nationalists under the 7-Council model. And surely another compromise could have been found that would have ensured that south Derry, Armagh City, Crossmore and Down could have stayed in nationalist controlled Councils, while letting Banbridge, Cusher, The Orchard, and other unionist areas, stay in unionist controlled Councils. Even if this appeared like re-partition, it would have satisfied more people than either of the other proposals. But if Sinn Féin were only interested in accepting one of the two main proposals, why did they choose the one least favourable for nationalists?

So why did Sinn Féin do it? Why did they abandon an additional 20,000 nationalist voters to the dubious pleasure of unionist rule? What can they say to the residents of Armagh and south Derry whose areas will fall under the anti-nationalist control of unionists from Coleraine or Portadown? How will they explain why the advances achieved by Limavady, in terms of recognition of an Irish identity, will be rolled back? Why did they not insist, as a minimum requirement for a deal to move to an 11-Council model, that the Councils would have a statutory obligation if neutrality in terms of symbols, emblems and flags?

One possible, though cynical, explanation is that Sinn Féin are content to consign an additional 20,000 nationalist voters to the petty irritations of unionist rule in order to radicalise them. A satisfied nationalist, living in a district where parity of esteem and power-sharing at local level are taken for granted, is less likely to vote for Sinn Féin than a voter whose aspirations and identity are blocked at every turn by unionists.

A less cynical explanation is that Sinn Féin intent to use their blocking power to ensure that all of the eleven councils do provide a neutral environment and parity of esteem, when the legislation establishing them comes before the Executive. Mandatory power-sharing in all eleven councils, along with strict equality-proofing in terms of symbolism, could make the 11-Council option a price worth paying. However, since these things would have been equally possible in the 7-Council model, this explanation may not be correct. Perhaps this was all just part of a larger deal, but the quid pro quo is, as yet, missing.

Sunday 25 January 2009

Discrimination - a unionist reflex

Live TV and radio can be dangerous for politicians. Deprived of the minders, speechwriters, editors and the advice of colleagues, they can just open their mouths and say what they think, and there it is ... on the record for ever more!

Sammy Wilson, DUP MLA, MP, and Minister for the Environment, had just one of those moments today on the Politics Show, when he showed the watching world (well, the micro-world of Northern Ireland at least) that the old unionist reflex - discrimination - is alive and well.

Wilson said firms should give jobs to locals ahead of foreign nationals in the current economic downturn. He said it made sense to give preference to people "with roots here", and "a lot of people moved in because of opportunities that there were."

Ignorant not just of equality legislation (which as a Minister he is obliged to uphold), but also of the values that underpin that legislation, Mr Wilson let slip that he finds it acceptable, even sensible, to discriminate in employment on the grounds of 'localness'. This is, besides an implicit call to discriminate on grounds of race (after all, didn't the Asians, West Indians, North Africans, etc, 'move in because of opportunities that there were', and aren't their 'roots' elsewhere?), also an insight into the thinking of the DUP. If, in 2009, they consider it acceptable to discriminate against Poles, Lithuanians, Brazilians, Asians and Africans, then does anyone really think that they do not find it equally acceptable to discriminate against Catholics, their traditional enemy?

Wilson has done a useful service by reminding us of the true nature of the unionist mindset, and reminding us of why it is essential that unionism, and its ugly prejudices, are defeated.

Thursday 22 January 2009

Norman Hamill, from RUC Inspector to United Irelander

There is little more discomfiting for either side in a bitter struggle than the defection of one of 'their own' to the other side. Where such defection is provoked by personal dislikes, or financial gain, the defector can be discounted. But where the defector is motivated simply by conviction, his very existence becomes destabilising for his 'tribe'.

In Northern Ireland there are very few real defectors from 'their' tribal position. The best known are usually the agents that the British have managed to recruit within the IRA – people like Scappaticci and Callaghan. But there are other defectors whose position is based upon principle, or a long-term reassessment of their 'received' position. People who have been brought up within one of Northern Ireland's two tribes, who have lived and worked within the assumptions of that up-bringing, but who have, nevertheless, abandoned the position of their tribe and 'come over' to the other side. Many people who do so, do it very quietly – they vote in private for a party that represents the 'other' position, they joined the RUC, or they took Irish lessons. Few make the move to the 'other side' very publicly.

One who did make a radical and visible personal shift from the assumptions both of his up-bringing and his career, is Norman Hamill, a columnist for the Derry Journal and other related newspapers in the Johnston Press group. A senior police officer in Derry, who ran the police press operation in the North West for many years and who retired from the police in 2001 after 30 years' service, had this to say in a recent column:

My family background is Protestant and broadly unionist but I believe the ultimate solution to some of our political problems lies in the creation of a fully sovereign united Ireland.

Such a view isn't exactly wildly popular amongst some Protestants and I'm always vulnerable to a charge of trying to ingratiate myself with "the other side". In another sense, it's a liberating place to be. Why inch forward painfully for years towards the only real solution when the big step we need to take is already perfectly obvious?

For someone whose background ought to place him squarely in the unionist camp, and whose life experiences as a policeman during the whole of the troubles/war should have ensured that he stands solidly against all of the objectives of the men and women he fought, these are quite extraordinary words.

We can only hope that when a retired RUC Inspector believes that the ultimate solution is "a fully sovereign united Ireland" there must be thousands more from the same background who quietly agree.

Having some craic with the Young Unionists

Maybe they forgot their policy of distain for all things Irish, or maybe it's a hopeful sign (a 'green shoot', perhaps), but it is certainly interesting that the Fermanagh Young Unionists choose to spell the word 'craic', or 'crack' in the Irish manner on their website:
"Fermanagh and South Tyrone YU social evening
20th February 2009, Irvinestown

The Fermanagh and South Tyrone branch of the Young Unionists are planning a social evening on Friday 20th February, it will include going bowling in Irvinestown.

So if you are thinking about becoming a FSTYU member or if you simply want to find out who and what we are then come along to what is sure to be a good evenings craic.

If you are interested in coming along then the FSTYU Secretary can be contacted on"

Usually unionists are quick to point out that craic is merely a gaelicisation of an older english word. And they may be right. So why do they use the Irish version? Are they inadvertently demonstrating that their anti-Irishness is just a political posture, behind which they are, actually, more Irish than they pretend?

Monday 19 January 2009

Six Executive Departments?

Members of the DUP have tabled a motion to be debated at the Assembly on Monday 19 January calling for a reduction in the number of government departments. The motion, tabled by DUP MLAs Simon Hamilton, Peter Weir and Ian Paisley Junior reads:

"That this Assembly recognises the importance of ensuring that the maximum amount of public spending is directed at frontline services; and calls on the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to bring forward proposals to reduce the number of government Departments."

Although not specified in the motion or the DUP's press release, the number of Executive departments envisaged appears to be six. Simon Hamilton, quoted by the BBC, said: "We used to have six and I think that should at least be a target number to get it down to."

The number of Executive departments is decided by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister acting jointly, so while the DUP may be able to count on Peter Robinson, nothing will happen unless Sinn Féin agrees.

The interesting thing about this DUP proposal is that it is, in fact, beneficial to the nationalist block, and detrimental to the unionist block. With the current strengths of the parties in the Assembly, a ten member Executive (as at present) actually gives unionists a majority – 6 Ministers, to 4 nationalist Ministers. Any even-numbered Executive with less than ten members would have equal numbers of unionist and nationalist members. An eight member Executive would have 4 unionists (3 DUP, 1 UUP) and 4 nationalists (3 Sinn Féin, 1 SDLP); and a six member executive would have 3 unionists (2 DUP, 1 UUP) and 3 nationalists (2 Sinn Féin, 1 SDLP). Odd numbered Executives would have one more unionist than nationalist Members.

So why are the DUP proposing to increase the strength of nationalists in the Executive? Their claimed motivation is to 'ensure that the maximum amount of public spending is directed at frontline services', but since the number of civil servants would not change, the administrative costs of providing this 'front line' spending would change very little. Greater economies could be gained by reducing the number of advisors and office costs for each Minister ­– but in fact, if each Minister in a six-member Executive had greater responsibilities they may well feel the need for even more staff and administration, and thus the saving would be minimal.

The actual outcome of such a slimming-down of the Executive would be to ensure nationalist responsibility for exactly half of all policy areas, with the concomitant increase in the visibility of nationalist Ministers, policies and outcomes. The losers would be the DUP itself, who would lose two Ministers, and the UUP and SF who would each lose one. It is a very strange political party that proposes to reduce its own power and position, for no particularly strong reason.

This is a bizarre proposal from the DUP, and one that this blog will continue to watch, to see if there is not, buried within it, some ulterior motive that is not immediately obvious.

20 January, Update:

The Assembly voted for the DUP motion, but with Sinn Féin abstaining. This does not mean that the proposal will actually lead to a reduction in the Executive in the short term, as it must be agreed by both the DUP and Sinn Féin. But the vote shows, at least, that Sinn Féin are not strongly opposed to it. The SDLP, unfortunately, disgraced themselves by accusing the DUP of "a power grab". The DUP denied this, correctly pointing out that it would mean fewer DUP ministers. It seems that the SDLP cannot do simple arithmetic.

Sunday 11 January 2009

Catholic Tories?

On the Slugger O'Toole political discussion website, a recent thread discussed a particular aspect of the link-up betwen the English Tories and the UUP - the desire by the Tories to demonstrate that they are 'above' Northern Ireland's tribal politics by selecting Catholic and female candidates. While the latter is a bit irrelevant since the men-only stranglehold on political positions has been breaking down quite fast in recent years, the lack of Catholics amongst the unionist parties has, if anything, been becoming more pronounced.

Unionists try, without much conviction, to claim that their parties are non-sectarian by pointing to the two recent Catholic members of the UUP - John Gorman in North Down, and Patricia Campbell in North Antrim. The problem is that Gorman is very old and retired from active politics (not dead, as I inadvertently assumed), and Campbell stood only once, in the 1998 Assembly election, failed to get elected, and has disappeared from politics. There are, basically, no known Catholic activists in any of the unionist parties!

So the Tories want to attract Catholic candidates, in the hope of thereby attracting Catholic votes. There is a persistant unionist belief that there are a large number of Catholic unionists who would vote unionist, presumably, if they had a Catholic to vote for. Why unionists think that Catholic unionists would be so sectarian is a mystery. If these mythical Catholic unionists exist, despite the Protestant tribalism of unionism, then why would they not vote for a Protestant?

Nonetheless, the Tories want Catholics. As Mick Fealty, owner of the Slugger O'Toole site, puts it:

"Their priorities? Women and Catholics. The former will come as no surprise. UUP party leader Reg Empey has previously acknowledged that his party must improve on its abysmal record of getting its women members into politics. But the latter will be met with some scepticism.
Yet they seem serious about their intent. They are even prepared for the likelihood that running a Catholic candidate will lose them votes in core Unionist constituencies, for the sake of establishing the principle.

The discussion on Slugger O'Toole focussed unsurprisingly on the prospects of Catholic women becoming candidates, but this, I suspect, is a smokescreen. The Tories want Catholics and women, but not necessarily in the same package.

So, if there are no existing Catholic unionist activists waiting in the wings, the Tories will need to find some new blood. In order to prove that the new (Catholic) candidates are not just Uncle Tom Catholics dancing to the old UUP tune, they will have to demonstrate a clearly different approach, and be untainted by the sectarianism of the old UUP.

A prime candidate springs to mind. A Catholic from middle-class Holywood in North Down, who has spent much of his adult life in southern England, who has never joined a nationalist party or expressed a nationalist thought. An Irish speaker who has never said anything political in the language. A proven political animal who has cooperated closely with leading unionists (and nationalists) from all parties, who is slowly but surely becoming a household name through his many appearances in the print and broadcast media. A man known to senior Tories and unionists as a serious and dependable sort. A writer who has contributed to the re-thinking of the unionist project, and a blogger who scrupulously never criticises any political movement (though providing extensive space for those who do). A man whose support for unionism shines through his thin veneer of impartility.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you your surprise Catholic Tory candidate for the next Westminster election:

Mick Fealty.

Remember, you read it here first.

Wednesday 7 January 2009

Equality Commission Monitoring Report N° 18

On 16 December 2008 the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland published the 18th Fair Employment Monitoring Report, showing the proportions of Protestants and Catholics employed in most major public and private sector organisations.

All specified public sector bodies and private sector concerns with more than 25 employees have been monitored since 1990. Private sector concerns with 11 or more employees have been monitored since 1992. Part-time employees (those working less than 16 hours per week) were first monitored in 2001. Monitoring covers between 67%-69% of those in employment in Northern Ireland

The Monitoring Reports have become part of the furniture in Northern Ireland these days, so it might be opportune to remind ourselves of the reasons for such monitoring, and indeed the reasons for the Equality Commission itself. Though strongly denied by unionist politicians then and now, the need for strong legislation, a statutory body and regular monitoring of the employment situation came from the persistent discrimination against Catholics in the workforce by the predominantly Protestant employers. For much of Northern Ireland's existence as a semi-autonomous state its politically and economically dominant class was Protestant and unionist, and for reasons of strategy or simple bigotry members of this group practiced systematic discrimination against Catholics in housing and employment. Eventually the frustrations of the Catholics led to the civil rights movement and, arguably, the 25 year war by the IRA against the British state. Measures were quickly taken in response to the demands of the civil rights movement – responsibility for housing was removed from the mainly unionist-controlled district councils, the rights of business owners to multiple votes was removed, and fair employment legislation was enacted. The fact that, in 1998 (30 years after the civil rights movement began its campaign, and at a time when unionist politicians claimed that there was no discrimination) the British government felt it still necessary to maintain and even strengthen the legislation for, and the monitoring of, fair employment, demonstrates very clearly that in their eyes the discriminatory reflex was still extremely strong amongst employers.

The 18th report itself contains a few interesting details:

  • The overall Catholic share of the monitored full-time workforce has increased by 9.1%, from 34.9% in 1990 to 44.0% in 2007, with a corresponding decline in the Protestant share.
  • The Catholic male share has increased by 9.8%, from 32.0% in 1990 to 41.8% in 2007. This relatively low share probably represents the fact that many Catholic men work in small (and thus unmonitored) firms, often in the building or pub trades.
  • The Catholic female share has risen by 7.8 percentage points, from 38.5% to 46.3%. This relatively high share probably reflects the use of Catholic women by employers to fill two 'quotas' – the Catholic and the gender.
  • In numerical terms, and comparing only those sections of the workforce which were monitored in 1990, the net number of Catholic full-time employees has risen by nearly fifty per cent (48.7% or 56,138 employees) in the past seventeen years, from a figure of 115,266 in 1990 to 171,404 in 2007. During the same period, the Protestant full-time count grew by only 1.6%, a net rise of 3,380 employees, from 214,691 in 1990 to 218,071 in 2007.

The report also looks at job applicants in monitored workplaces, to ensure that the numbers recruited matches (more or less) that of applicants. The report notes that:

  • For the first time since statutory monitoring began, the overall number of Catholic applicants (270,921) "mirrored those from the Protestant community" (270,735). (In 2001, there were 57,000 more Protestant than Catholic applicants). In fact, those figures show that, for the first time ever, more Catholics than Protestants applied for jobs. As job applicants are usually (but not always) young people, this provides additional evidence of the emerging Catholic majority amongst the young. However, these figures should be read with caution, as clearly there were many multiple applications (as the 540,000 applicants outnumber the 530,000 employees in monitored workforces!)

Of those actually recruited, the report notes that:

  • There were 19,564 public sector appointments during 2007 (a fall of 5.9% on 2006); the Catholic share of these public sector appointments was 51.9%.
  • There were 81,717 private sector appointments during 2007 (an increase of 1.9% during the year); the Catholic share of these private sector appointments was 51.2%.

So the picture shown in this report is one of a continued increase in the Catholic proportion of the workforce, reflecting the continued increase in the population as a whole. The proportion of the whole workforce (16-65) that is Catholic is 44% and rising. The Catholic proportion of the entrants to the workforce is over 50%, which will ensure that the Catholic proportion continues to rise. It is clear from the census figures that the Catholic proportion of those approaching retirement age is considerably lower than the Protestant proportion. So many more Protestants than Catholics retire every year. The workforce will thus continue to become more Catholic and less Protestant.