Tuesday 31 March 2009

Conservative split?

It seems that the NI Conservatives may be going native, and following the time-honoured Irish political ritual of 'the split'.

We are all (painfully) aware of the on-off Conservative-UUP common-law marriage, that was to have been a merger, but ending up as a dog's dinner called the UCUNF.

It is clear that a number of Northern Irish Conservatives were less than happy with the outcome of the talk with the UUP – the most vocal being the Vice-Chair of the NI Tories, Jeffrey Peel, who has since been removed from his post by the party.

It appears that the Peel faction is not giving up their fight. On 11 March a group of NI Tories set up a website called Clear Blue Water signifying the wish to "put clear blue water between the Conservatives and Northern Ireland parties".

That could not be much clearer. They oppose the deal with the UUP, and are prepared to put their heads above the parapet to say so. How numerous they are is not clear – the website mentions but two names, Jeffrey Peel and John Hanna – but the mere fact of a crack in the Conservative façade must worry head office. If the 'true' Tories refuse to participate in the UCUNF nonsense, and effectively withdraw from politics in Northern Ireland, then the Conservative Party will end up with less than nothing – an alliance with an unreconstructed sectarian unionist party which has already demontrated its contempt for the greater Conservative Party.

The Tories need to stop the relationship with the UUP quickly, before it does them serious damage, and concentrate on actually building their own brand in Northern Ireland. When they fail to do so, as they have failed in the past, then they should draw the obvious conclusions – Northern Ireland is not the same as England, and the unionist parties are not nice polite Home Counties Tories. When they realise this, then they will be able to deal with them as they should always have done – as hang-overs from a pre-democratic era, who do not share the 'British' values that the Tories cherish. If they are serous about their value system, the Tories must seek the destruction of all of the unionist parties. This will challenge their supporters severely, and force them to reflect on what their values really are. If they fail to do this, then observers will draw their own conclusions, and Cameron's modernisation of the party will fail, and it will slip back into obscurity as a party of Colonel Blimp's harking back to an era that is long gone. It's their choice, and their challenge to face.

Monday 30 March 2009

No to the NICUP

The BBC are reporting that the Conservatives originally wanted to merge with the UUP and set up a new party in Northern Ireland called the Northern Ireland Conservative and Unionist Party (NICUP), but the UUP vetoed this, and opted instead for the strange hybrid called the UCUNF.

This goes some way towards explaining why the negotiations between the Tories and the UUP took so long, to achieve so little. It may also explain why some NI Tories were so unhappy with the outcome.

If the report is true, it demonstrates two important points; firstly, that the UUP remain 'little Ulsterists', more concerned to maintain their existence as a minor regional fringe party than to actually join the mainstream of UK politics; and secondly, that the UUP think that their position is stronger than it actually is.

The UUP is in serious danger of sinking – it is almost bankrupt, its share of the vote is falling, it has only one MP and risks becoming only the fourth largest party in a small pocket of marginal territory, and its message is indistinct and almost irrelevant. Yet, when a White Knight rides into view, instead if grasping the opportunity and using it to regain some support and relevance, it acts like a spoilt child, and demands everything it wants.

Well, the English Tories have put up with its spoilt tantrums for now, most probably for tactical reasons relating to Scotland rather than Northern Ireland, but it is very unlikely that they will forget about the snub they received. Snubbing a suitor may be sensible if you are in a position of choice and strength, but the UUP is in neither position. The Tories are a major party, with seventy times the electoral support that the UUP received. Although deeply in debt, they have access to resources the UUP can only dream about. Most importantly, they will probably form the next UK government.

And yet the UUP felt that they could refuse their offer of a merger!

This was an appallingly bad decision by the UUP, and one that will hopeful have enormously negative consequences for them. The UUP's hubris may well spell their demise as an electoral force. This would be no great loss for Northern Ireland, as the UUP have consistently played a negative and divisive role, but it would leave the DUP as the predominant unionist party, with a virtual monopoly of the unionist vote. For that reason alone the UUP is necessary at this point – a split unionist vote is always preferable to a united voice. Only time wil tell if the TUV can grow to occupy the right-wing unionist space that the DUP may start to vacate as it absorbs the UUP's place. These are interesting times on the unionist side of Northern Ireland's divided house – amongst the questions of interest to nationalists is whether unionism is splitting into an increasing number of parties (DUP, UUP, TUV, Tories, …) or starting to coalesce into a single dominant party as in the past.

Sunday 29 March 2009

Scratch the surface and the bigotry is revealed

It is almost incredible that in this, the twenty-first century, it is even necessary to blog this story - but depressingly, Northern Ireland, or at least some parts of it, remains stuck so far in the past that such things are still newsworthy.

A Private Members' Bill aimed at changing the rules of succession to the British throne, including removing the ban on heirs to the throne marrying Catholics was recently tabled in the British parliament.

Now some readers may find it unbelievable that there is actually, in his day an age, a blatantly sectarian provision in the constitution of a 'liberal western domocracy'. But there is. To give them credit, 81% of people polled by the BBC agreed that the law should be changed, to allow an heir to the throne should to marry a Catholic and still become monarch. Only 15% disagreed. Nonetheless, the ruling Labour Party voted the Private Members' Bill down, though they did claim that their own version of the proposal was being discussed. Essentially they agree that the sectarian provision should be dropped, but they want the credit for it - fair enough, one might say, they are politicians, so that's what you would expect.

Somewhat downplayed in the various reports is the fact that the Bill would not have removed the ban on the British King or Queen actually being a Catholic - that ban would remain, to the continuing disgrace of Britain.

The truly depressing part of this grubby story came from the DUP, when Jeffrey Donaldson argued against the proposal, saying that: "A potential monarch who is a Roman Catholic, a member of that church is required to owe their first allegiance to the Vatican. Now the Vatican is a state, it is a constitutional entity it is recognised as a state in international law there is, therefore, a potential conflict of interest between being the head of state of our own country and owing allegiance to another state."

This is, of course, just a dressed-up way of trying to justify the continuation of constitutional anti-Catholicism. The nonsense about the Vatican is a throw-back to another era (the 17th century, probably).

Donaldson compounded his innate bigotry in a press release, in which he said that: "I question whether trying to shunt through Parliament changes to the Act of Settlement is the best use of government time. Whilst the Private Member’s Bill on this issue is likely to be defeated, government action on this issue would be an inappropriate use of time. [...] There is no-one jumping up and down in the streets demanding this change, so why make such a song and dance about it?"

If Mr Donaldson cannot see why issues of direct discrimination against groups of citizens are worthy of remedial action, then perhaps he should reconsider what he bases his 'loyalty' to the British state upon. Is his loyalty based upon the UK being a multi-cultural state, a liberal state, one in which all citizens are equal before the law? Or is he more attached to his sordid little hatred against Catholics than to concepts like equality, democracy, diversity and tolerance?

Donaldson, and the DUP in which he finds a political home, are constant reminders of the unpleasant nature of unionism, and its basic disrespect for Catholics. That the British constitution provides succour for him and his kind is a disgrace, and any politician or party that drags their feet on the removal of this ban is guilty, along with Donaldson and the DUP of naked bigotry.

[NB: in case any reader thinks that my disgust at this blatantly sectarian discrimination is based on sour grapes, please note that I am a confirmed member of the Church of Ireland, and have no personal interest in this law being changed. The law is wrong, and should have been changed long ago.]

Friday 13 March 2009

Libertas NI

Libertas, the political vehicle set up by Declan Ganley, that received enormous publicity thanks to its role in the rejection of the Lisbon Treaty in the south, and that seeks to "reject overbearing bureaucracy and put democracy back at the very centre of Europe's vision", has announced that it will contest the European Parliament election in the UK.

In fact, in a move so far un-noticed in Northern Ireland Libertas promised to "run candidates right across the United Kingdom". And they appear to be serious about this.

On 11 March Libertas registered as a political party in Northern Ireland, under the title Libertas NI, giving the same details (address, officers, etc) as for the UK branch of the party.

So if Libertas NI really go through with their promises, it seems that the European Parliament election on 4 June in Northern Ireland will have yet another novelty, and the Euro-sceptic UCUNF partnership will be challenged by an even more sceptical organisation. It will make the election very interesting.

Thursday 12 March 2009

Jim Nicholson and 'ourselves alone'

One of Jim Nicholson's boasts was that he, though his alliance with the English Conservative Party, was "part of the largest political group" in the European Parliament, thus giving him access to power and position.

As Nicholson's own web site (clearly not updated for a long time) puts it:

"In the European Parliament the Ulster Unionists are allied to the EPP-ED GROUP, the largest parliamentary group in Brussels and Strasbourg. The Group unites Christian Democrat, Conservative and other mainstream centre and centre-right political forces from across the now 25 member European Union, and currently includes MEPs from over 30 national political parties. With enlargement of the EU to ten new Member States in May 2004, the position of the EPP-ED Group in the European Parliament will be further strengthened.

Jim Nicholson is keen to maximise Ulster Unionism's influence in Europe. Being part of the largest political group allows him to do just that.

The EPP currently have 287 MEPS, around 37% of the total, and include the parties of Nicolas Sarkozy, Angela Merkel, and Silvio Berlusconi, and are thus a significant force in the European Parliament.

But poor Nicholson has just had his position destroyed by his friends in the Conservative Party – they decided yesterday to carry out their threat to quit the EPP.

William Hague and the Conservative's Europe spokesman, Mark Francois, met Joseph Daul, the head of the EPP's caucus, and later confirmed to the press that "the meeting was amicable and during the course of it, we confirmed to Daul our longstanding intention to leave the EPP and establish a new grouping in the European parliament after the elections."

So, if the current strengths of the parties are repeated after the June 4 election, Nicholson will find himself a member of a little rump party representing around 3.5% of the total MEPs in the European Parliament. Well done, Jim, that will certainly "maximise Ulster Unionism's influence in Europe"!

Nicholson's new mini-party would be the second smallest in the European Parliament, beating only the ID (Independence/Democracy group – including the UK Independence Party and Kathy Sinnott).

Apparently the Conservatives would like to set up a new 'Euro-sceptic' group in the European Parliament after the elections, so perhaps Jim's new friends will include Declan Ganley's Libertas and the UK Independence Party, if any of them get elected. But even if the Tories (and UCUNF) joined the IP group, they would have a total current strength of 49 MEP's (27 Tories plus Nicholson, 22 IP group), around 6% of the Parliament.

So the moral of the story appears to be; vote UCUNF to get an isolated powerless MEP who will be obliged through his party and group whips to oppose pretty much everything that the EU could do for Northern Ireland.

But, of course, like the proverbial donkey wrapped in a union jack, Nicholson will get the votes of his part of his tribe. But he'll have trouble attracting any transfers from the Euro-friendly SDLP or Alliance candidates. Hopefully this will be enough to consign him, at last, to history's political dustbin.

Monday 9 March 2009

Jim Allister gives up

Speaking to a public meeting in Castlederg on Saturday 7 March, Jim Allister MEP,leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice and its candidate for the European Parliament election in June, said:

Dromore was the classic catalyst, when in consequence we saw a radical, panic-driven change of personnel at the top of the DUP, abandonment of the Maze Stadium and now the jettisoning of several intended judicial powers for OFMDFM. If this is what 800 votes can achieve, think what tens of thousands of traditional unionist votes will do. We will shake this iniquitous regime to its very foundations."


"… a vote for TUV puts the brakes on. Remove TUV and its full steam ahead for the DUP/Sinn Fein coalition. Hence, the logic and sense of unionists insuring against such by voting in their tens of thousands for TUV".

So Allister has seen the writing on the wall (of the betting shop) and has realised that he will not be re-elected in June. He is settling for the "tens of thousands" of votes that the bookies think he will get, and is re-positioning himself as the 'brake' on the DUP vehicle – stealing just enough of their votes to stop them claiming massive support, perhaps even robbing them of their intra-unionist majority – maybe even causing them to lose their position as largest party in Northern Ireland.

But as for his own seat in the European Parliament, he seems to have accepted that it is already lost.

Friday 6 March 2009

NI Conservatives out of business, but who gains?

With the surprise resignation of NI Tory Jeffrey Peel from the Joint Committee set up to manage the UUP-Tory non-merger, the whole of Northern Irish Conservatism seems to be threatened.

Peel sent his resignation letter (aka political suicide note) to various outlets in order to ensure its wide dissemination. In it he pulled no punches, describing the UUP thus:

"I have come to the conclusion that the UUP does not have the interests of Conservatism at heart. Rather, as the UUP is facing a severe financial crisis, it sees the Conservatives as a means out of its financial and electoral woes. Many UUP members (although by no means all) still adopt a little Ulster mentality when it comes to politics, and the Party’s only MP is simply not a Conservative."

It is clear that under these circumstances Mr Peel cannot remain as Vice Chairman of the Conservatives in Northern Ireland as long as the partnership with the UUP continues. As he says, "I would encourage the Party to seek a mandate to govern every part of the United Kingdom without entering into deals with other political parties".

Jeffrey Peel is outspoken, but probably quite representative of a group of people who support broadly right-of-centre politics, Northern Ireland's place in the UK, and non-sectarian politics. That number is clearly small, judging by the Tories electoral failure in Northern Ireland, but it had hoped, via the link-up with the UUP to create a bigger and broader vehicle.

The fact that the Tory wheel has already started to fall off the wagon before it has even gone anywhere, is a poor sign for the non-merger. Where Peel has lead, others will follow, and the Conservatives in Northern Ireland will soon cease to exist in any significant way.

For the UUP this may not matter. Indeed they may relish it, as it would allow them to present themselves as the local branch of a UK-wide party, and to have access to the funding that this would give them. Perhaps the UUP engineered the split with the NI Tories with precisely this objective in mind.

But the wider issue, arguably more important to unionism, of broadening the appeal of the partnership to include people who do not see themselves as 'Ulster Unionists' will be lost. Taking finance from the Conservative Party in order to better fund a UUP candidate will not win any 'centre-ground' votes, or attract support from the mythical 'pro-union Catholics'. On the contrary, those who voted Conservative up to now did so in the certain knowledge that their votes were wasted (at all levels bar local councils) – yet they continued to do so. They consciously did not vote for the UUP, and will undoubtedly not decide now to vote for them. If they are now presented with 'Conservative and Unionist' candidates that are, to all extents and purposes UUP candidates, they may simply not vote at all, or vote for the Alliance Party.

So while the UUP may feel that it has won a victory over people like Jeffrey Peel, who they dislike because of his obvious dislike of their 'little Ulster' mentality, it may well prove to be a Pyrrhic victory which damages and divides unionism. Ultimately the winner is likely to be nationalism, as is so often the case when the unionists fight amongst themselves. The diminution of the local branch of the Conservative Party, and the strengthening of a regional and sectarian party can only weaken Northern Ireland's links with Britain – exactly the opposite of the originally declared intention of the non-merger.

As Peter Robinson nicely put it, "[the] UCUNF has inherited from the old UUP the capacity for forming circular firing squads".

Thinking the unthinkable

A letter from Ernest Black of Cookstown in yesterday's Irish News repeats a point that is known to most people but too often excluded from conscious consideration: that in 1798 there were "thousands of members of the Presbyterian Church who were members and supporters of the United Irishmen".

Around the time of the United Irishmen there was considerable support from Protestants of all religions for the separation of Ireland from England – many well-know United Irishmen were Anglicans, like Wolfe Tone, Robert Emmet, Lord Edward Fitzgerald – and many were Presbyterian. Even those who were not United Irishmen were often in favour of Irish autonomy – Grattan's Parliament, and the bribery needed in order to pass the Act of Union tend towards this conclusion.

Time has passed, and political circumstances have changed. Yet it may be possible that despite the flamboyant demonstrations of loyalty demonstrated by many unionists, a current of autonomy still flows.

The DUP has often, and with good reason, been described as a party of 'Ulster nationalists' (recently here, for example), and the continuing controversy over the insistence by the UUP of retaining the word 'Ulster' in the title of their joint venture with the English Tories shows that they too, are wedded to 'Ulster particularism'.

Unionism and nationalism are often seen as having entirely incompatible goals – union with Britain for one, a united Ireland for the other. This leads to very public differences of opinion and an apparent zero-sum game in Northern Irish politics. But underneath the surface, and perhaps even unseen by the main protagonists, a potential solution may exist – independence for Northern Ireland.

An independent Northern Ireland has always been anathema for nationalists, partly because it has only ever been promoted by Protestant sectarian extremists. In 1972 the Ulster Vanguard movement (of which both David Trimble and Reg Empey were once members) published a proposal called 'Ulster – A Nation' calling for much greater autonomy, though still within the UK. Other loyalists have called for independence with 'Dominion' status. In most cases, though, independence was seen as necessary in order to ensure (by arms if necessary) that the British government did not 'sell out' Northern Ireland to a unitary Irish state. Some of the proposals were clearly sectarian in outlook.

Independence as an objective has been dropped by all unionist parties, and is now rarely mentioned except to be dismissed as a 'crank' idea. The persistence, though, of 'Ulster particularist' ideas amongst most unionist groups and parties shows that the underlying concept is not unthinkable.

What is unthinkable to most unionists is a united Ireland. For a variety of reasons most unionists do not wish to find themselves part of a sovereign Irish state, in which they would be numerically dominated by nationalists (or Catholics, as many sectarian unionists would see it).

Although the stated goal of Nationalists is the achievement of such a sovereign Irish state, experience shows that many are prepared to compromise. It is in this grey area of compromise that a solution based upon Northern Irish independence could grow. An independent Northern Ireland would be as much an Irish state as the republic to the south. Although Ireland would then contain two states, both would be self-governing and would ensure that the Irish people, as a whole, would finally be free of external interference. That they chose to do so in two states rather than one would be of small importance.

As devolution advances, and as the 'Ulster particularists' of the DUP, and to a lesser extent the UUP, realise how marginal they are to Britain, and Britain is to them, could the submerged current of eighteenth century Presbyterianism bubble to the surface? If, at the same time, Sinn Féin became even more of a northern-centred party than it currently is, could the interests of the two groups converge?

As the sizes of the two main political blocks – unionism and nationalism – approach parity, it would be clear that neither could entirely dominate the other. In an independent Northern Ireland, freely agreed by the representatives of both unionism and nationalism, neither side would feel 'defeated' or 'victorious'. A solution that takes both sides' interests into account could attract support from most people, as well as the active support of the two 'godmother' states – the UK and the Republic.

Could the difficult relationship between the 'Ulster nationalists' of the DUP, and the increasingly northern Irish republicans of Sinn Féin be transformed over time into a meeting of minds? A realisation that, despite differences, they are more alike each other than they think? Both sides distrust both Britain and the Republic, and this growing identification as a place apart could become the seed of a common purpose. With a small amount of compromise by both sides, an outcome could be arrived at that both might find surprisingly attractive.

Monday 2 March 2009

Two-tier citizenship? Yes, but, no, but ...

What does Reg Empey actually want? On Friday, at the launch of the Ulster Conservative and Unionists – New Force … sorry, I mean the Conservatives and Unionists, he claimed that close co-operation between the two parties would help to end "a two-tier" UK citizenship. Yet, only the day before, he had told the Guardian that "the Tories have promised to turn all of Northern Ireland into a special tax zone if elected". Apparently the Tories had promised that Northern Ireland would be given powers to set low corporation tax in order to attract foreign investment. "What we have agreed is that all of Northern Ireland will be designated as an enterprise zone," the UUP leader said.

And what would any dispassionate observer call that? That's right, two-tier citizenship!

Gone in a weekend!

The "Awful name" that the UUP and the Tories decided for their common-law marriage (the 'Ulster Conservatives and Unionists - New Force') has already disappeared.

Having hummed and hawed about the name for months, they finally announced it last week to a deafening chorus of ridicule. Not just from opponents, but also from true-blue Tory supporters.

By today, the 'new name' had already disappeared. On the Conservative website the alliance is now being referred to thus:

"Both the Conservative Party and the Ulster Unionist Party approved, this evening, the paper produced by the Joint Committee of both Parties. This will result in a new force in Northern Ireland politics: Conservatives and Unionists."

The 'New Force' in the short-lived title has receded from the title into the text of the sentence, and the contentious word 'Ulster' has just plain disappeared. Even the logo being promoted by the Tories makes reference neither to 'Ulster' nor the 'New Force':

Even the UUP, who insisted on the inclusion of 'Ulster' in the title have backtracked. Their own statement refers to a "new, modern, dynamic political and electoral force of Conservatives and Unionists", thereby drowning the 'new force' in a stream of adjectives, and omitting the offending U-word.

So what happened? Did the UUP jump too soon, announcing a name that was not yet agreed or acceptable to the Tories? Did the English Tories (whose money the UUP wants and needs) insist on this embarrassing climb-down? It seems that the balance of power in the relationship has been re-defined, and not in the UUP's favour.

European Parliament election – Alliance candidate

Confirmation that no agreed 'unity' candidate will be selected to represent the broad 'other' constituency in Northern Ireland in the European Parliament election in June came yesterday when the Alliance Party selected a candidate of their own. Ironically, though, the Alliance Party describes their candidate as a 'unity candidate' on their website, despite the fact that he was selected by the Alliance Party only.

The chosen one is Ian James Parsley, a North Down councillor elected only by the transfers of David Alderdice. The fact that Mr Parsley has only ever stood for election once, and achieved a princely 40% of a quota in one of the most Alliance-friendly parts of Northern Ireland, does not inspire confidence in the party's expectations. The fact that Mr Parsley thinks that the European Parliament is "the most powerful parliament in the world" does not inspire confidence in his knowledge of European or world affairs.

Nonetheless, we can expect the media to talk up Mr Parsley's chances and to present him as the White Knight that Northern Ireland has been waiting for. Whether he scores better than the 6.6% received by the 'unity' candidate in 2004 (John Gilliland – where is he now?), or the paltry 2.1% received by the Alliance party in 1999, we will have to wait and see. Only two things are certain – he will not be elected, and any votes he receives will be at the expense of the UUP and the SDLP.

It is possible that the Alliance Party has not really considered the effects of its candidature on the eventual outcome. If its voters would have voted for the UUP candidate in the absence of an Alliance candidate, then the effect of standing an Alliance candidate may be to rob Nicholson of his seat and hand it to the SDLP. But if Alliance voters would have otherwise voted equally for the UUP and the SDLP (as the evidence of the transfer of Gilliland's votes in 2004 seems to imply), then the effect might be neutral.