Monday 7 June 2010

Swedenise us!

Thanks to Gerard O'Neill of Turbulence Ahead for publishing yet another of the international comparisons that allow us to see how well – or badly – we are doing compared to other western countries.

This one looks at our image of politicians. Needless to say it doesn't include Northern Ireland separately, but it would be surprising if Northern Irish people trusted their politicians any more than the average western European.

But one country stands out, as almost always in comparative surveys, no matter what the topic – Sweden.

In Sweden 43.8% of people have a 'rather favourable' opinion of their politicians, compared with an EU average of 12.4%. And only 18.4% of Swedes have a 'rather unfavourable' opinion, against the EU average of 55.4%.

Swedes are not foolish people, and are no more likely to be fooled by their politicians than anyone else, so what these results show is that Swedish politicians are simply better than any others. If their voters have a positive opinion of them it must be because they are more honest, more diligent, more representative and more efficient than any others.

And, of course, good politicians lead to good politics and good governance – and these lead, almost inevitably, to a more responsive state in which the needs of the people are served better than elsewhere. No wonder Sweden is close to the top of the list in almost every international comparison, whether it is looking at freedom, affluence, education, development or happiness.

Whatever it is that Swedish politicians are doing, they are doing it well, and their voters are happy with them. We need to learn from them.

UUP selecting Assembly candidates

An article in today's News Letter about the UUP's selection process for next year's Assembly election manages to avoid using two embarrassing words – Tory and UCUNF.

Nowhere in the report on the process is there even a hint about whether the UUP will again fight the election in partnership with the Tories, or whether that embarrassing and failed experiment is now firmly in the past.

Given the paucity of talent that the Tory part of UCUNF managed to contribute in May, it would be interesting to see if they could find anyone better next year.

Some Tory hopefuls will undoubtedly wish the UCUNF 'joint-selection' process to be used, and for the candidates to then stand as 'UCUNF' candidates – otherwise, standing as Tories, they would have almost no chance of being elected to the Assembly. But perhaps the UUP, still the overwhelming majority of the partnership, have decided that the Tories are more of a hindrance than a help.

Martin Mansergh's mysterious message

Long one of unionism's bêtes noires, Martin Mansergh – former Senator now TD, and southern Protestant republican – has a letter in today's Irish Times in which he appears to say, in a circuitous way, that constitutional republicanism is an ideology that everyone can and should embrace, "unless one is a unionist".

So Mansergh is aiming his message fair and square at the nationalist community in the whole country, but obviously more specifically in the north, and his message appears to be one of ideological unity, if not unity of political parties.

There is no democratic, historical or ideological justification, or any basis in international law, unless one is a unionist, for not embracing a constitutional republicanism, now that we have at long last succeeded in creating a foundation for future active cooperation between Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter and other more recent traditions. The original peaceful constitutional ideals of William Drennan in 1791, when the United Irishmen were founded in Belfast, have something that everyone, even unionists, can in part identify with.
However his message contains other, slightly veiled, hints that he sees the political future – in the short-term at least – as containing two separate Irish jurisdictions:

While I respect the view – which I shared – that equates a free Ireland with a united Ireland, recent developments as a result of the peace process, which give us new freedom to achieve freedom in Ireland as a whole, suggest that we have now taken a broader and more pragmatic view. […] Self-determination, as the term suggests, and as international law prescribes, permits the free choice of more than one outcome.
Since Mansergh is seen by unionists as one of Fianna Fáil's key pointmen on the north, these remarks will be interpreted as a significant change of tack by that party, and one that signals a move away from the anti-partitionist, pro-united Ireland rhetoric of the past. It is too soon to tell whether they are right, and, of course, Mansergh's remarks chime with the official post-GFA line, that seeks to give the northern institutions time to 'bed in'.

Nonetheless, his remarks appear to be a carefully coded message to both nationalists – saying that republicanism is both right and correct, but only if constitutional – and to unionists, saying that, as far as the southern government is concerned the 'seige' is lifted, but on condition that they also move towards 'republican' ideas of fairness and inclusion (the mention of Protestant United Irishman William Drennan was a clear message).

Why Mansergh chose to publish his message now is less obvious. There are no immediate 'crossroads' on the political horizon, and the threat he implicitly invokes – that dissident republicans will hijack the centenary of 1916 – is hardly immediate. Perhaps his message was just part of a slow subtle campaign to mould consciousness north and south in a direction that suits the needs of Fianna Fáil at present. Faced with pressing economic problems to resolve, Fianna Fáil does not want either dissident republican or extreme unionist agitation north of the border to upset its attempts to steer the south back to calmer waters.

Sunday 6 June 2010

2009 Young Life and Times Survey

The results of the 2009 Young Life and Times Survey have recently been published on the ARK web site. The survey is based on questionnaires sent to a sample of 16 year olds and suffers from the unreliability of all such surveys and opinion polls.

Nonetheless, with that caveat, the results show up some interesting results.

For example, on identity, when asked “Which of these best describes the way you think of yourself?”, only 28% of the sample self-identified as ‘British’, while 36% self-identified as ‘Irish’. The second most popular description, beating British, was ‘Northern Irish’ on 30%. Thus 66% - two in three – young people seem to identify primarily with the island of Ireland, or their particular part of it.

Amongst boys the situation is more pronounced than among girls. Only 25% of the boys questioned saw themselves primarily as ‘British’. The ‘Irish’ and ‘Northern Irish’ groups accounted for 68% of the total.

Even amongst Protestants only a bare majority – 51% - saw themselves first and foremost as British. Almost as many (40%) saw themselves as ‘Northern Irish’), though the 6% who self-identified as ‘Ulster’ can almost definitely be added to the ‘British’ group.

Perhaps unionism can gain some reassurance from the 5% of Catholics who saw themselves as ‘British’ – only partly compensated by the 2% of Protestants who identify as ‘Irish’. However, 76% of Catholics saw themselves as ‘Irish’ – greatly outscoring the Protestant ‘British’ category.

The attachment of the two religious groups to their perceived ‘natural identity’ is visibly different – Protestants are less likely to have a primary ‘British’ identity than Catholics are to have a primarily Irish identity. Protestants seem to be moving more towards a ‘Northern Irish’ identity. The results of the wider NILT survey for 2009, due soon, will allow a comparison between the 16 year olds and their parents and grandparents.

A second question: “How important is your national identity to you?” adds an interesting twist to the results above.

35% of Catholics say that their national identity is ‘very important’ – the figure for Protestants is only 24%. In fact, 21% of Protestants say that their national identity is ‘not very important’ or ‘not at all important’ – the corresponding figure for Catholics is only 11%.

So it seems that amongst 16 year-olds the ‘Irish’ identity is not only more widespread than the ‘British’ identity, but it is also more strongly held. Young Protestants, on the other hand, seem to have a weaker attachment to their Britishness.

Remember, these young people, 16 years old in 2009, will be voting next year!

The Republican illusion

The description by others, and by itself, of Sinn Féin as a ‘republican’ party is only partially accurate – and reflects only a minor and unimportant part of that party’s policies.

In fact, in terms of actual republican values, the SDLP is a more republican party:

The SDLP's vision is a reconciled people living in a united, just and prosperous new Ireland.

As the party of civil rights, the SDLP is working for an Ireland free from poverty, prejudice and injustice; a vibrant country of energy, enterprise and endeavour, where economic prosperity delivers better public services and greater opportunities for all.

The SDLP wants to build an Ireland where conflict, violence and sectarianism become footnotes to our past; where reconciliation, equality and inclusion are chapter headings in the new story we will write together. We will build a better Ireland where we truly cherish all the children of the nation equally.

The SDLP wants this generation and those that will follow to live in an Ireland that stands tall in the world as a champion of global justice, environmental protection & sustainable development; an Ireland that stands out as a beacon of hope for peace, democracy, human rights and respect for diversity.

Yet the media refer to Sinn Féin as the republican party, and the SDLP as nationalist. The reality is probably the inverse.

Sinn Féin’s self description is focussed on the achievement of the nationalist project:
For 100 years now Sinn Féin has been to the forefront of bringing about change in Ireland. Republicans and Socialists from Constance Markievicz, James Connolly and Liam Mellows to Bobby Sands, Mairéad Farrell and Joe Cahill have brought us closer to our goal of Irish unity and independence. Today’s generation of republicans continue that work.
The SDLP’s self-description, though also couched in the context of Irish reunification, talks much more about the type of society that it wishes to see in the new Ireland – and that society is one that is republican in the true sense.

Ironically, the aims of republicanism and Irish nationalism are unconnected, despite their popular conflation. It is not necessary to be a nationalist to be a republican – some unionists like Alex Kane are openly republican in relation to the UK constitution – and in almost all practical terms the UK is itself a republic. The residual existence of a largely powerless monarch blinds many in Britain to the fact that their country is a de facto republic.

But whether or not the UK complies with 99% of the republican agenda (the other 1% is the monarch and the undemocratic House of Lords), Irish nationalists still do not feel themselves to be a part of it, and continue to aspire to reunite their country as a single democratic republic.

In that sense both the SDLP and Sinn Féin are actually nationalist parties, but the SDLP is a republican nationalist party, while Sinn Féin is simply a nationalist party.

This distinction is not unimportant. From outside Irish nationalism may look quite monolithic (the famous pan-nationalist front of unionist paranoia), but the reality is that there are as many different and competing strands within nationalism as anywhere else. For many people, while it is important that Ireland is reunited and sovereign, the achievement of these objectives is not in itself sufficient. A repressively Catholic Ireland, or an economically-illiterate Ireland, or an inward-looking insular Ireland, are not what most true republicans want, and any political movement that promotes one is doubly unhelpful to the cause – because that party would lose the support of many true republicans, and because that party would be unable to attract the support of those outside the traditional nationalist camp.

Many commenters have pointed out the obvious truth that Sinn Féin is essentially a Catholic nationalist party, and one that remains closely associated with the 30 years of war that Northern Ireland endured. Most resign themselves to the inevitable continuation of Sinn Féin and its seemingly inexorable usurpation of the lion’s share of the nationalist vote. Few – bar the dissident republicans, who exclude themselves from normal political discourse by their continued support for political violence – dare to think the unthinkable, or to say it out loud: Sinn Féin, its history, its members, its methods and its policies, are part of the problem.

For Irish nationalism to succeed in its project – and for that project to have been worth the effort – it must be a truly republican project, and as things stand at present Sinn Féin is not.

The future of the Irish nationalist project is less certain as Sinn Féin gains in strength. The chance of attracting (ex-)unionist support drops to zero, and even Irish nationalist republicans may drift away into apathy.

Sinn Féin is not sacrosanct. It is a political vehicle that succeeded earlier vehicles – the Redmondites, the Parnellites, the Fenians, the United Irishmen … Just as parties or movements grow, they decline and are replaced by others more suited to their times. Sinn Féin’s time has passed, and it is time for Irish republicans to create a new republican party that is neither Sinn Féin nor the SDLP. The latter, though republican in policy is ineffectual in practice. This is something that some SDLP members have clearly realised (including the unfortunate Declan O’Loan).

It is time for Irish republicans to start to create a truly republican party – one that robustly supports democracy, inclusion, fairness, tolerance, the rule of law, and that creates the conditions that allow all citizens to enjoy a full and worthwhile life. Of course all parties pay lip-service to such values, but a truly republican party would actually practice them.

Let a new party arise – a party that unites Catholic, Protestant, dissenter, atheist and all others is a common endeavour. Let the rump of Sinn Féin co-exist, if for no other reason that to emphasise the difference. And then let the battle of ideas commence.

Friday 4 June 2010

Yes, I did … No, you didn’t …

Schoolyard debating stuff, which most parents and teachers are familiar with. ‘Stop that, you boys’, they say, hoping that puberty will kick in soon.

But what can be done if the children are – shall we say – somewhat over the normal age of puberty?

Today’s instalment of primary school squabbling is brought to you by none other than James Allister QC:
"I wish to answer the pernicious falsehood, being peddled by anti-TUV factions, that my party contributed in any way to the failure to win back Fermanagh & South Tyrone … “

Now, Arlene, say sorry to Jim. Jim, stop sniggering and tell Arlene you accept her apology. Now go and play nicely. I don’t want to have to talk to you about this again.

Ah, if only adult politics was as mature as the playground.

A Unionist Labour Party?

The blogosphere has been buzzing with speculation about the future of Dawn Purvis and the PUP since their recent dramatic parting of company. Some of this speculation has even extended to the possibility that it is a sign of, or perhaps a catalyst for, a more fundamental realignment within unionism.

Purvis is reported to be a 'left winger' (this blog disagrees, but that is a different argument), and the speculation is whether she could find a home in any of the other unionist parties. The consensus appears to be that she would not be happy with any of them, as they do not match her 'feminist' and 'left wing' principles.

While Purvis may simply wander off into a political wilderness, there are many who would like to see her recent discovery of morality as a sign that she has a serious future in Northern Irish politics, and could join with others – some mavericks, others not – to form a new grouping based on left-of-centre politics. A Unionist Labour Party of sorts.

Other names being mentioned in connection with such a grouping include:
  • Sylvia Hermon, whose humble origins and undisguised opposition to the Tories make many see her as a de facto Labour MP,
  • Alan McFarland, a close associate of Hermon in North Down,
  • Fred Cobain, the UUP's man in North Belfast,
  • Chris McGimpsey, whose opposition to the UUP-Tory link was public,
  • Even Naomi Long is being eyed up, as a working class woman from East Belfast she is assumed to share many of Purvis's attributes (but not her (previous) support for sectarian murder, of course)
Of course, such a 'class-based' realignment of Northern Irish politics has been eagerly anticipated by many people for many years, but has never actually happened. The PUP itself was hailed as a harbinger of change – but failed to prosper, and now its single MLA (who received 80% of all the voters cast for the party in 2007) has walked away.

The Holy Grail for many unionists is the participation of the big British parties. They know that their own little parties will never attract Catholic support, and that Catholics will therefore continue to vote for nationalist parties, thus keeping the 'constitutional question' constantly in the spotlight. If the British parties – Labour and the Tories – could be persuaded to set up shop in a serious way in Northern Ireland enough Catholics might be lured away from the nationalist parties to ensure that they never come close to the 50%+1 threshold that unionists so fear.

This year the Tories made their most serious effort yet to set up in Northern Ireland – and failed quite spectacularly. But the Tories were never going to attract mass Catholic support – the Catholic community, for historical reasons, is largely statist and would be unlikely to vote for a party that promises a Big Society but a smaller state. The main hope amongst unionism is that the British Labour party – to which most Irish emigrants in Britain gave their votes – would come to Northern Ireland and sweep up large numbers of Catholic votes into what would remain a de facto unionist party.

So far, though, that has not happened, and the Mexican stand-off between unionism and nationalism continues.

But the absence of the British Labour party, and the clearly nationalist standpoint of the SDLP, has left working class Protestants poorly represented. The DUP takes their votes but provides them with a regressive and reactionary representation. Any working class Protestant looking for a socially liberal party is sorely challenged.

A new 'left-of-centre' unionist party would – so goes the theory – provide working class Protestants with a political vehicle that represents their interests. The fact that the proposed party must be specifically unionist is an interesting admission – no one is speculating about the formation of a cross-community left-of-centre party (the old one, the NILP, withered and died years ago). It is an admission that politics in Northern Ireland is played out in parallel in two different communities – as in Belgium – and that the hope of attracting the British Labour party is slim. If 'normal politics' are to be established in Northern Ireland, they must be tailored to Northern Ireland's unique context, it seems.

If a new grouping (or even a party) appears in the unionist community it will necessitate changes – there simply are not enough votes for so many real parties to co-exist. In order to have any impact a new unionist labour party would need to take votes from the DUP, the UUP and even Alliance, leaving each of these in danger of defeat in some areas. Proportional representation minimises the potential damage to unionism as a whole, of course, but considerable uncertainty would be added to an already uncertain situation.

The new party would clearly have a very Belfast-centric orientation. All of the names being mentioned are from Belfast or North Down, and the PUP's support was almost entirely in those areas. The new party would need to try to broaden its appeal, particularly in areas with significant working class Protestant votes – Coleraine, Larne, Carrickfergus, Derry's Waterside, Ballymena, Portadown, and so on – but these are precisely the areas that provide the DUP with much of its support. More than any other party the DUP has reason to fear any new party. Squeezed between a declining constituency in the 'west' and the challenge of the TUV in its heartland, the DUP cannot afford to lose the Protestant working class vote in Greater Belfast.

One possible scenario for the future is that a left-right realignment in unionism leads to the emergence of two parties – a new left-of-centre party that absorbs the PUP, leftist UUP members, and much of the DUP's urban vote – and a middle-class party (the DUP) that represents the farmers and the suburbs, and absorbs the remains of the UUP and sees off the TUV. This second party may be the 'unionist unity' party that the DUP are already trying to create in time for next year's Assembly elections. It would be ironic if they succeeded in finally taking over the UUP only to see a serious new competitor appear, this time to their left.

Of course, new dawns are commonplace in Northern Ireland, but revolutions are rare. It is just as likely that nothing will happen – Purvis will become an independent with a short political life, and unionism will continue its self-destructive spiral.

Thursday 3 June 2010

The PUP – saints and scholars

The media reaction to Dawn Purvis’s resignation from the PUP leadership, and her possible replacement by John Kyle, is little short of revolting.

Sycophantic journalists describe the odious Purvis as having “a firm committment [sic] to her left wing unionist principles”, and describe the equally awful Kyle as “a Christian GP”.

Let’s be honest here – Purvis was, and Kyle still is, mouthpieces for the political front of the UVF. Not the Alliance Party, not the Greens, not the Natural Law Party.

The UVF were – and seemingly still are – a gang of sectarian murderers. They were directly responsible for at least 426 deaths between 1969 and 2001, and their pseudonymous siblings the Red Hand Commando killed another 13. That is the minimum – another 250 were killed by ‘non-specific Loyalist groups’, many of whom were actually the UVF in drag.

Since 2001 the UVF has not had a change of heart either – it killed John Allen in 2003, Andrew Cully and Brian Stewart in 2004, Jameson Lockhart, Craig McCausland, Stephen Paul and Michael Green in 2005, and Bobby Moffett in 2010. And only now does Purvis have a fit of conscience! While the UVF were slaughtering Catholics purely because of their religion she had no such quibbles. Kyle still doesn’t.

Purvis – the left-winger – and Kyle – the Christian – chose to join a party that argued for, supported and succoured these killers. They had choices – they could have joined the UUP, or even the DUP. Purvis – the ‘committed feminist' – could have joined the Women’s Coalition. Kyle – the Christian – could have joined the Alliance Party. Neither of them did, though – they joined a party that they knew to be the other face of the UVF. Kyle has said that “he wouldn't rule out a complete break with the UVF” following the Moffett murder. That means that he accepts openly that his party is currently closely linked to a terrorist gang – and yet the media insult our intelligence by calling him a ‘Christian’.

Purvis is not a ‘left-wing feminist’ – she is a bigoted loyalist fascist who considers that the random murder of Catholics is defensible, and sang dumb year after year while her associates killed working class men, women and children.

Kyle is not a ‘Christian’ – he supports the murder of innocent people, simply because they are believed to belong to a different faction of Christianity.

And the media is a disgrace. It colludes with the UVF by pretending that their apologists are saints and scholars, while it knows as well as anyone else that they are immoral and indefensible.

How the TUV gifted victory to Gildernew

This is it, according to the DUP:
In order to cut through TUV spin and deceit, here are the facts about Michelle Gildernew’s 4-vote win in Fermanagh and South Tyrone:

1. Michelle Gildernew was returned by four votes as the Member of Parliament for Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

2. A greater number than four people spoiled their ballots in that election by writing “TUV” across them.

3. TUV supporters ensured Michelle Gildernew was re-elected.

4. That was the contribution TUV made to the Unionist unity and co-operation in the recent General Election.

Presumably the DUP has some evidence of the spoiled ballot papers through its tallymen. But since there were 263 'invalid votes' in the constituency, then there must be quite a few other possible culprits according to the DUP. Maybe there were even "a greater number than four people" who scrawled 'DUP' or 'UUP' or 'Conservative' on their ballots, in protest at the lack of any of these options in the election.

The public should be told - maybe the DUP tallymen could release their report?

The DUP's obsession with trying to blame the TUV looks quite odd. It could have completely contrary effects – either by hammering a large nail into the TUV's coffin, or by providing the TUV with the oxygen of publicity. Whatever the DUP is trying to do is not immediately obvious – perhaps developments will point towards some actual point to their current tantrum.

The 'west' – 40 years a-greening

The previous blog, in response to a question on the 'greening' of Fermanagh, raised the issue of the 'greening' of the 'west' as a whole.

A series of comparable elections – from 1973 to 2005 – allows us to look closely at the political evolution of the district council areas, which have remained largely unchanged. For the purposes of this blog 'the west' will be considered to be the area covered by Cookstown, Derry, Dungannon, Fermanagh, Limavady, Magherafelt, Omagh and Strabane districts – for which the results of the nine elections from 1973 to 2005 are available.

  • 'The west' is not, of course, the west – that starts on the other side of the Shannon, but for this blog's purposes the term will be used for the western half of Northern Ireland.
  • Whether Derry and Limavady are 'the west', or the north-west is a matter of judgement. The blog includes them.
  • For some early elections candidates stood under a variety of labels, or as independents. Where possible, they (and their voters) have been considered to be unionist, nationalist or neither on the basis of later political affiliations, or if the patterns are clear, from the transfers of votes to or from them.
  • The further back in time one looks, the less clear the picture. For the last few elections, though, the mist has cleared somewhat and the figures are thus more reliable.
The period from 1973 to 2005 represents almost 40 years – a generation and a half. It is a short period in historical terms, even if 1973 looks like pre-history to many today. Yet even in this generation-and-a-half the changes in 'the west' are clear to see.

Firstly, in terms of the share of the vote that the two main blocks received:

In 1973 – hard though it is now to believe it – unionism polled more votes in the west of Northern Ireland than nationalism did. This has changed steadily, and by 2005 the balance was clearly in nationalism's favour (almost 2 to 1).

Share of the vote allows the actions of other candidates to have an impact on the apparent strength of a block, though. It is useful, thus, to look at the share of the electorate (i.e. all those eligible to vote) that the blocks receive:

This shows that the share of the population of the 'west' as a whole that votes unionist has dropped from a high of 34.8% in 1981 to only 24.4% in 2005. From more than a third to less than a quarter in barely a generation – unionism is in serious trouble in the 'west'.

At the same time nationalism has seen its share of the electorate rise from 30% to 45%. Whether this is due to demographic increase in its 'natural' community (i.e. Catholics) or its ability to attract the votes of those who voted for centre or independent candidates in the past is immaterial – both types of recruits contribute to the 'greening' of the electorate.

The nationalist population is growing – as the demographic figures predict that it should – and the unionist population is stagnant or shrinking, as its birth rate barely matches its death rate. Neither of these factors is likely to change much in the next few years, so the 'greening' of the 'west' ought to continue. Whether there will be another local election using the same boundaries is, however, less certain.

(Sources: readers can find the full unedited results of all elections since 1973 on the Electoral Office web site at: Edited and commented (though sometimes incorrect) versions are to be found on Nicholas Whyte's site at:

Fermanagh questions

A reader asked, in a comment on the recent post on Fermanagh and South Tyrone – whether there was any real proof of the 'greening of the west' in the electoral figures for that constituency:

"… doesn't the fact that the Nationalist and Unionist populations of Fermanagh have voted in more or less equal numbers since Partition rather undermine the idea of a fast-growing Nationalist population? Or to put it another way, why hasn't Fermanagh greened like the rest of the West?"
The situation in FST masks two different realities – the constituency comprises the whole of Country Fermanagh (aka Fermanagh District), and much of Dungannon borough (it used to comprise all of it, but the Coalisland area was moved to Mid Ulster in the 1990s).

The Fermanagh part of the constituency shows a very clear period of nationalist under-voting, just like the figures for for the whole Westminster constituency. But Dungannon Borough does not show such a period of under-voting. There are electoral influences at work in Fermanagh that appear to be unique to that county.

The period of nationalist under-voting in Fermanagh is evident from the graph below, which shows the results of the nine district council elections from 1973 to 2005:

It is clear, thus, that the withdrawal of large number of nationalists from active involvement in politics was not limited to Westminster, following the traumas of the Hunger Strikes and Bobby Sands election. Many also withdrew from voting in district council elections during the same period.

In 2001, however, they returned to the ballot boxes, in the local elections as in the Westminster elections, and the numerical superiority of the nationalist community was demonstrated again.

What shows the 'greening' of Fermanagh more than the fluctuations of the nationalist vote is the steady decline in the unionist vote after 1989. The unionist vote as a share of the electorate was fairly constant from 1973 to 1989, at around 38%. After 1989, though, it has fallen in every election and by 2005 was just over 31%. At the current rate oif decline it would be below 30% when the next elections are held. This steep decline is a combination of two factors: a general reduction in the turnout rate, and a numerical decline in the number of unionist voters in the county.

Turnout in 1989 was 80%, but in 2005 it was 73.1% - a falling away of 8.6% of the voters (calculated as: (80-73.1)/80). If it is assumed that both communities suffered a decline in voter motivation, than their shares of the electorate should have declined by around the same 8.6% - but unionism's share declined by 19.6%.

Nationalism's share actually increased by 10.9% over the same period, but 1989 is a bad starting point as it fell within the period of nationalist withdrawal. However, even compared with its high-point in 1981 the nationalist share has declined by only 5.3%, while turnout since 1981 had dropped by 13.4% (it was 84.4% in 1981) – implying a real increase in the nationalist share.

Using the share of the electorate is a more accurate measure than using share of the actual vote, because a community's share of the electorate is not dependent upon the ebbs and flows of the other community. The drop in the unionist share of the electorate represents a fall in the unionist share of the electorate and/or its interest in voting. The fact that the drop in the unionist share is far greater than the overall fall in turnout implies strongly that its underlying share of the electorate is dropping.

To answer the original question, therefore, the nationalist and unionist populations of Fermanagh appear, since 1989 at least, to be diverging quite quickly. The unionist share of the county's population appears to be shrinking – as the demographic figures suggest – and the nationalist share appears to be increasing – as the demographic figures also suggest. Fermanagh is 'greening' like the rest of the west – perhaps at a different speed and in its own way – but that is, of course, typical of Fermanagh.

The end of the PUP

"I can no longer offer leadership to a political party which is expected to answer for the indefensible actions of others." So said Dawn Purvis, as she announced her resignation as leader and member of the PUP.

She said she was leaving because the PUP was "severely restricted because of its relationship with the Ulster Volunteer Force".

Purvis will remain as an independent MLA for East Belfast.

Barring a miracle for the party, this is it for the PUP. Purvis represented 80% of their electoral support – her 3,045 votes in 2007 were 80% of all of those cast for the PUP. The two other PUP candidates, in South Belfast and North Down received 410 votes and 367 votes respectively. Purvis successfully retained David Ervine's seat in East Belfast, but her abrupt exit from the party – and its reasons – ought to ensure that neither she nor the party retain the seat next year.

That leaves the PUP as a micro-group, with at best a couple of councillors, including its new interim leader, Belfast City councillor John Kyle. A major question mark must now exist over the very existence of the party. If it folds, like the UDP before it, the alphabet soup of unionism will thin a little, and some working class loyalist voters will have to find a new political home. The direction that the UUP is taking makes it unlikely that they will follow it, and while the DUP is a more logical choice, there remains a suspicion of that party amongst the PUP's community.

So the PUP's small vote – only 3,822 in 2007 – may either be dissipated amongst various other parties or independent candidates, or it may join the many other potential working class loyalist votes which are simply not cast – PUP voters may simply not turn out at all next time around.

Wednesday 2 June 2010

Curious and curiouser

Arlene Foster, DUP MLA for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, today took an unsolicited swipe at the TUV (and why not, because it’s always easier to kick someone when they’re down). But her attack on the TUV included the following curious accusation:
Grassroots Unionists are crying out for closer co-operation within Unionism. Jim Allister represents the divisions of the past. Grassroots Unionists want to see Northern Ireland moving forward. TUV wants to take us back to being sidelined and ignored in our own country. TUV supporters handed Fermanagh and South Tyrone to Gildernew: that was the TUV contribution to Unionism in the recent election.
Given that the TUV did not stand in FST – and explicitly called on unionists to unite where seats were closely contested with nationalism – this is a strange claim.

How precisely could ‘TUV supporters have handed Fermanagh and South Tyrone to Gildernew’? It can be fairly safely assumed that none voted for her, so Foster must be alluding to the question of turnout. The only possible explanation of her remark is that she believes that TUV supporters stayed at home, rather than vote for the ‘unionist unity’ candidate – who was not even a member of Foster’s own party.

But turnout was quite low by FST standards across the board. If TUV supporters stayed at home, then so did DUP and UUP supporters – so how can Foster accuse the TUV of particular complicity?

Foster may, of course, simply be trying to distract attention from her own party’s responsibility for the lower turnout. But pushing for a ‘unionist unity’ candidate Foster, Elliott, and both of their parties, ensured that some unionists felt uncomfortable voting for the chosen ‘unionist champion’. For some, he came too close to being seen as a sectarian ‘Protestant’ champion. Of course, it is very likely that Michelle Gildernew would have won in any event, had there been competition on the unionist side. But having conspired to pull a ‘stroke’ – and failed – Foster may be looking for a weak scapegoat.

The TUV have been quick to respond to Foster, saying that:
The facts are clear. We were the first party to call for non-party candidate.
Indeed, at that point Mrs Foster was still strutting around promoting herself as the DUP candidate. TUV kept out of the contest in Fermanagh and South Tyrone and called repeatedly for our supporters to vote for the unity candidate. Mrs Foster’s dishonest attempt to smear TUV, therefore, does not stand up to scrutiny.
It looks as if the intra-unionist bitterness and rivalry will continue for the time being – and probably as far as next year’s two major elections. This is, as has frequently been noted, a gift to nationalism – so this blog is pleased to note the resumption of normal relations between the DUP and the TUV.

The TUV is not gone away yet

At its Central Council meeting last night TUV delegates reviewed its disappointing General Election results, but determined that it would continue to give voice to Unionists who still rejected unrepentant terrorists in government and the rigged system of mandatory coalition which put them there.

A TUV spokesman said:
"The message from across the party was clear, the cause which brought TUV into existence remains right. Likewise the extension to Northern Ireland of the universal right to vote a party out of office and to have an Opposition is an unanswerable imperative which can only be attained through the replacement of unworkable compulsory coalition at Stormont with the democratic and viable alternative of voluntary coalition."

And so on it goes, until next year's Assembly and local elections …

Unionist disunity is, of course, a gift to nationalism, but sometimes one can have too much of a good thing. Allister and his friends should listen to the electorate – their brand of negativity is unpopular and is not likely to come back into fashion unless something dramatic happens.

A dearth of defections

Northern Ireland's politicians are remarkably promiscuous. They have a tendency to hop from political bed to political bed that is unmatched in most countries. But their political promiscuity seems to be entirely restricted to their own political blocks – unionists happily swap the UKUP for the TUV, or the UUP for the DUP; some mix in periods of 'independence', but always (à la Hermon) within the wider family.

Nationalists are perhaps a little more loyal to their partners, but there are still some defections – from the SDLP to Sinn Féin, from Sinn Féin to 'independence' or even Fianna Fáil, and so on.

Politicians who start out in the 'centre' also tend to stay there – there is movement between the Alliance Party and the Greens, for example, but almost no movement through the invisible walls to either unionism or nationalism.

Lastly, the small left-wing group tends to intermarry as well – the labels change, and the parties merge or disappear, but the affiliation rarely changes.

An examination of political affiliations over the past 40 or so years shows an almost complete dearth of real defections – from one side of the house to the other. This blog knows of no example whatsoever where a member of a nationalist party has crossed over to a unionist party, or vice-versa. The only recent defection – remarkable in its rarity – was one last year from the centre (Alliance Party) to the unionist camp (Tory Party) – Ian Parsley.

Perhaps there have been quiet defections at the level of the ordinary members or supporters, but at the level of the elected representatives there have been almost none at all. This contrasts greatly with both Britain (where, for example, the recent Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Shaun Woodward, was elected as a Tory but switched to Labour in 1999), the USA, where politicians sometimes switch from Republican to Democrat or the reverse, or the south, where there have been high-profile defections including that of Michael O'Leary who defected to Fine Gael while he was leader of the Labour Party!

In other places, it seems, politicians join parties on the grounds of principle, and reassess their membership against changes in their own, and the parties, principles. In Northern Ireland, while this does happen, it happens only within the parameters of the main blocks. These blocks give the appearance of being hermetically sealed – people are born into a block and remain within it. Occasionally a person will appear in a block that is not the 'normal' one for their ethno-religious background – but even they will then tend to stay within that block for the whole of their political life. Billy Leonard, although a Shankill Road Protestant and ex-RUC reservist, took no active part in politics until he joined the SDLP, and from there he moved to Sinn Féin. None of the SDLP or IIP's Protestant members – Ivan Cooper, Eddie Espie, John Turnley, etc – appear to have ever been 'unionists'. The very recent, and fleeting, appearance of Catholic unionists – Peter McCann and Sheila Davidson flirted with the Tories last year – shows the same trait. Neither was ever known to have been a 'nationalist'.

The strict and rigid separation of the blocks suggests that issues of pure principle are not really at play here. There is no logical reason why a Protestant is more likely to be a unionist than a Catholic is, or why a Catholic is more likely to be a nationalist than a Protestant is. But reality shows that that is the pattern. And, as the dearth of defections shows, once a person is born (literally, or in a political sense) into one block, he or she will almost always stay there.

The consequence of this is that the in-flow to the two blocks is of prime importance. The block that recruits more new members will ultimately win. Recruitment at birth is the largest factor – and unionism appears to have belatedly realised that it is losing on that front. It may appear unsavoury to some that children are 'assumed' to be nationalist or unionist based upon their parents religion – and in a normal country that would not be so – but the hard reality of Northern Ireland is that parental religion is the greatest single determinant of future political adherence, and this does not appear to be changing.

In recognition of its weakness in the maternity wards, unionism turned to Plan B – recruit people who have not yet made a firm political choice. And, of course, though unspoken, what they really meant was 'recruit some Catholics'. By tapping into the supply of young Catholics the unionists, through their new vehicle UCUNF, hoped to divert some of the flow to their ranks, and thus to tip the balance back in their favour. But despite the best efforts of the Tories – the UUP's partners in this venture – the UCUNF strategy has so far failed. There was no evidence at all of an increase in votes to UCUNF – in fact the opposite occurred – in 2010 it received 27,671 fewer votes than the two parties received in 2005!

As for defections, well, there was just that one – Ian Parsley, and he only came from Alliance. UCUNF had had hopes of attracting some previously uncommitted (Catholic) support, but the ham-fisted way that it acted ensured that that could not happen. The already-committed – those active in the SDLP or Sinn Féin – showed absolutely no inclination to join what was clearly a tribal unionist venture.

If the walls between the blocks remain as impermeable in the future as they have been in the past, unionism is doomed. Its in-flow pipe is delivering fewer new members and voters than the nationalist in-flow pipe. Expect, then, a renewed effort – probably via a new vehicle (not UCUNF) – to divert some of those young Catholics in the direction of 'civic unionism'. The Tories tried and failed, so next up should be the British Labour Party.

Tuesday 1 June 2010

All-island or all-Ireland?

Elaine Byrne spoils an otherwise interesting article in today's Irish Times by making an unrelated and unnecessarily political point in the last line.

But the overall content of her article is positive. She argues that civic society is quietly creating an 'all-island' approach, in areas like sport and trade, and that it is time that politics caught up.

Byrne is particularly positive about Martin McGuinness, who, as the Stormont institutions bed in, is growing in stature. As she points out, he is increasingly demonstrating a spirit of true republicanism:
In the same breath as his call to commemorate the centenary of the Easter Rising, McGuinness noted that “it is equally right to recognise the sacrifice of those who fought in the first World War” because, he believed, “the experiences of republicans, nationalists, unionists and all others form part of our collective memory. They are part of who we are, as a nation, and as a community.”
She notes that the recent Westminster election showed that "instead of looking to the United Kingdom for political direction, a majority of unionists now seek to determine their own future within the context of a Northern Assembly that is beginning to bed down", and that Martin McGuinness's attempts at reconciliation are aimed at reassuring them that, in the case of him becoming First Minister next year, the sky will not fall.

The article notes the improvement in north-south co-operation between the two justice ministers, and that even DUP Finance Minister Sammy Wilson acknowledges that infrastructure investment and economic growth are intrinsically linked between North and South, necessitating an all-island, if not (yet) an all-Ireland approach.

Small steps, to be sure – but steps in the right direction.

Monday 31 May 2010

A Unity of Added Potential

Peter Robinson has called for a Unity of Added Potential, not a Unity of Necessity, at the North Tyrone DUP Branch annual.

The joke implicit in that statement is compounded by Robinson’s assertion that:

"For the DUP the concept of closer co-operation and the ideal of unity with fellow unionists is not a new one. Our willingness to work closely with other unionists, particularly the Ulster Unionist Party, was evident for all to see in past decades. "
And the basis for unity is:
“Any examination should be based upon common values, realism and a vision for Unionist renewal.”
So what are the common values that we are held between the UUP and DUP?

“A common belief in the maintenance and the development of the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”
(OK, so you’re both unionists. We got that – it’s in the ‘U’ in your names!)

“Identification with the institutions of the state and the over-arching British identity”
(Um, is that now what you just said?)

(Sorry? Are you pulling our legs? How many Catholic members have you? How often have you set foot in a Catholic Church?)

“Making the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Executive work”
(By trying to block every nationalist interest? This is Orwellian!)

“Upholding power-sharing with nationalists”
(By pushing for ‘voluntary coalition? How does that work? Do you truly think that people are stupid?)

“Transformation of the Northern Ireland economy”
(Tell us how. Tell us which public sector cuts you will push for, in order to reduce the burden on the private sector, and in order to minimise the out-bidding by the public sector that robs the private sector of talent)

“Many a harsh word has been exchanged between our parties. This has led to mistrust and will take time to overcome.”

Well, at least he admits that.

“Minority ethnic communities are growing and new ones being established in Northern Ireland that have little linkages with politics in general and Unionism in particular.”
So the DUP is worried that its negative and xenophobic tendencies are losing it the ‘migrant’ vote.

“…we must be honest in this debate by recognising that the immediate prospect of a single Party is unrealistic. We must crawl before we can run.”
But no single party means no first-grabs at the First Minister post next year. Is Robinson giving up on that already?

Having successfully sabotaged the prospects of unionist unity in 2010, the DUP is pretending to be keen on it for the future! But why? Simply because ‘unionist unity’ is a necessity for the DUP in order for it to retain its ‘top dog’ position – and the all-important First Minister post. What the DUP is proposing is, of course, a Unity of Necessity, not a Unity of Added Potential – the contrary of what Robinson is claiming.

A Unity of Added Potential is a contradiction. For the full potential of unionism, or nationalism, to be achieved, there must be a variety of alternatives. One single option is like one flavour of ice-cream – some people will be happy, some will make do with it, but some simply won’t like the flavour.

Robinson’s call smells of a mixture of desperation and opportunism. Desperation to hold on to its leading position, and opportunism concerning the chances of eating up the UUP. But if the DUP succeeds, and ends up as the core of a single unionist party, this can only lead to a long-term weakening of unionism, as it becomes simply a single-issue campaign, rather than a full political spectrum. For that reason, this blog supports the concept of ‘unionist unity’ – gathered up in one single conflicted party, unionism would quickly become like a bag full of cats – and would decend into strife and schism, to its detriment.

Fermanagh and South Tyrone – the story of a Westminster constituency

The seemingly never-ending story of Fermanagh and South Tyrone continues. The latest episode is that Rodney Connor, the defeated unionist unity candidate has launched a legal challenge over the result, by asking the Election Court in Belfast to review the election.

Although it is relatively rare for such a review to be requested, it is not surprising that it is FST that is the subject.

FST is a closely contested constituency, and has been one since its creation in 1948.

The first election in the new constituency was on 23 February 1950, and FST quickly established its exceptionality by recording a turnout rate record – 92.1%. The election was a straight battle between the veteran nationalist Cahir Healy (who stood as an abstentionist) and the unionist Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Richardson. Healy won, with 32,188 votes (51.9%) to Richardson's 29,877 (48.1%).

In 1951 another Westminster election was held, on 25 October 1951, and Healy won again – against the unionist candidate Frederick Patterson. Healy received 32,717 votes (52.1%) and
Patterson received 30,082 (47.9%). FST broke its own turnout record, with 93.4% of the electorate voting.

Sinn Féin contested the Westminster election that was held on 26 May 1955, and won – but with a smaller vote than Healy had previously received. Philip Clarke (SF) won 30,529 votes (50.2%) against the unionist candidate Colonel Robert Grosvenor who received 30,268 votes (49.8%). The turnout dropped to a still-remarkable 92.4%.
Clarke was a controversial candidate, having been captured less than a year earlier in an IRA raid on Omagh barracks (in a pre-operation for the planned border campaign). Clarke was declared ineligible due to his imprisonment and the Unionist runner-up was declared elected without a by-election.

The IRA's Operation Harvest (aka the border campaign) started in 1956, and would continue until 1962. It was a military failure, but a political disaster. The Westminster election held during the campaign, on 8 October 1959, saw Sinn Féin being wiped out in FST. Grosvenor, the sitting unionist (who had received the seat following the exclusion of Philip Clarke in 1955) received 32,080 votes (81.4%), while Sinn Féin's candidate, James Martin received a paltry 7,348 votes (18.6%). Although the turnout rate (61.6%) implied that most nationalists simply boycotted the election, Grosvenor actually received votes equivalent to more than 50% of the entire electorate – the first and only time such a thing has happened in FST, and implying that some nationalists had actually voted for a unionist in an apparent emphatic rejection of the IRA's campaign. It would be 1970 before the nationalist vote in FST would fully recover.

The next Westminster election, on 15 October 1964, came after the end of the border campaign, but the voters had not yet forgiven Sinn Féin. The new unionist candidate, James Hamilton received 30,010 votes (55.1%), while the Sinn Féin candidate Aloysius Molloy – who, since Sinn Féin was by then a proscribed organisation, called himself simply 'republican' – received 16,138 votes (29.6%). For the first time in FST 'other' candidates stood: Giles Fitzherbert (Liberal) got 6,006 votes (11.0%) and Baptist W Gamble (NILP) got 2,339 (4.3%). The turnout, still respectable, dropped to 85.9%.

By 1966, FST had already started to innovate with 'unity' candidates. In the Westminster election on 31 March 1966 the first such candidate – on the nationalist side – JJ Donnelly, managed to get beaten by the unionist incumbent James Hamilton, who got 29,352 votes (54.0%) to Donnelly's 14,645 votes (26.9%). Donnelly's score was not helped by the fact that he was not the only nationalist in the race (despite his description): a certain Ruairí Ó Brádaigh stood as a 'republican' (i.e. Sinn Féin), and got 10,370 votes (19.1%). Already chief of staff of the IRA, he would go on to become president of Sinn Féin and of his own Republican Sinn Féin party.

In 1970 the nationalist tactic of standing a 'unity' candidate finally paid off. Eight years after the end of the border campaign, the whole 'nationalist' (aka Catholic) electorate was prepared again to vote for a nationalist candidate. On 18 June 1970 Frank McManus, standing for Unity, received 32,813 votes (51.1%), beating the unionist incumbent, James Hamilton who got 31,390 votes (48.9%). The turnout rose again, to 91.2%.

However, as so often in FST, there were swings and roundabouts. In 1974 the new SDLP, buoyed by its success in the 1973 Assembly elections, contested the constituency, splitting the vote and letting the UUP candidate take the seat.
On 28 February 1974 Harry West, standing for the UUP-UUUC got 26,858 votes (43.6%), while Frank McManus got only 16,229 votes (26.3%). Denis Haughey, for the SDLP, got 15,410 votes (25.0%), and Hubert Brown, standing as a Pro-Assembly Unionist, got 3,157 votes (5.1%). McManus went on to become one of the founding members of the Irish Independence Party (IIP) in 1977.

But, remember those swings and roundabouts. A second election was held in 1974, on 10 October 1974, and this time the SDLP seems to have learned something, because they didn't stand. Instead nationalism found another unity candidate, Frank Maguire, who won the seat back with 32,795 votes (51.8%). Harry West received 30,285 votes (47.9%), which was about the limit of the unionist electorate in the constituency. Alan Evans for the Communist Party of Ireland got 185 votes (0.3%).

Frank Maguire was re-elected at the next election, on 3 May 1979, despite the intervention again of an SDLP candidate. Luckily for Maguire, the unionist vote was also split. He got 22,398 votes (36.0%), followed by the UUP's Raymond Ferguson on 17,411 votes (28.0%), Austin Currie, standing as 'Independent SDLP' on 10,785 votes (17.3%), Ernest Baird for the UUUP on 10,607 votes (17.0%), and, for the first time, an Alliance Party candidate, Peter Acheson on 1,070 votes (1.7%)

Maguire died in 1981 – at probably the most (in)convenient moment possible – right in the middle of the IRA/INLA hunger strikes. The rest is history – but is still fresh and raw in FST. Bobby Sands stood from his hospital bed, and won the seat, providing an immense boost to republican morale, and a huge propaganda victory for Sinn Féin. Much of the bitterness in the constituency's elections dates from this moment.

On 9 April 1981 the by-election was held to replace Frank Maguire. Sands, standing as an Anti-H-Block/Armagh Political Prisoner candidate (but, as a convicted IRA-man, clearly a republican), and received 30,493 votes (51.2%). The UUP candidate (and former short-lived MP in 1974), Harry West got 29,046 votes (49.8%). The SDLP chose not to stand, and with a turnout of 86.9%, its supporters clearly voted for Sands.

What is especially curious about this result was that it demonstrated an almost complete reversal in the attitude of the nationalist voters in the constituency vis-à-vis the border campaign. In the late 1950s and 1960s the vote for any form of nationalism suffered greatly – presumably from a reaction against the border campaign. That campaign, though controversial, was nothing like the IRA's all-out war in the 1970s – and yet in 1981 the nationalist voters of FST were prepared to vote massively for a known IRA man.

There was some element of resistance, of course. The number of spoiled votes – 3,280 – was far higher than normal, and the proportion of the electorate that voted for Sands (42.2%) was somewhat lower than the 45-46% that nationalism had been receiving in recent elections. However, the size of nationalism's lead over unionism ensured that Sands won.

Sands died on hunger strike, of course, and so another by-election was held to replace him, on 20 August 1981. His agent, Owen Carron, stood on the same Anti-H-Block Proxy Political Prisoner platform, and again won with 31,278 votes (49.1%), while Ken Maginnis for the UUP got 29,048 votes (45.6%). Alliance send down one of their big guns to try to bring civilisation to the wild west – Seamus Close got 1,930 votes (3.0%), but failed to inspire any Alliance revival in the constituency. Other odds-and-sods pointlessly jumped on the bandwagon – Tom Moore, for the Republican Clubs got 1,132 votes (1.8%), Martin Green, describing himself as General Amnesty got 249 votes (0.4%), and Simon Hall-Raleigh, describing himself as The Peace Lover got 90 votes (0.1%). Obviously the people of FST were not lovers of peace!
Carron never intended to take his seat, of course – he represented the strong abstentionist tradition in FST. It is interesting to note that the unionist vote in the two 1981 by-elections differed by precisely two votes – 29,046 in April, and 29,048 in August. This was clearly the utter limit of unionism's electorate in the constituency. It has never received so many votes since.

On 9 June 1983 the SDLP came again to unionism's assistance. In the Westminster election they stood again, and thus split the nationalist vote. Ken Maginnis then won the seat for the UUP with 28,630 votes (47.6%), while Owen Carron, standing now openly for Sinn Féin, got 20,954 votes (34.8%). Rosemary Flanagan, for the SDLP, got 9,923 votes (16.5%) and Davy Kettyles made his first appearance in a Westminster election, standing this time for the Workers' Party and getting 649 votes (1.1%).

Something seems to have snapped in the nationalist psyche at this point. Despite outpolling unionism, and achieving over 50% of the vote, nationalism appears to have become severely demoralised by its defeat in 1983. This allowed unionism, despite its downward trend, to outpoll nationalism in the four following contests. Around 5,000 voters, who had previously voted nationalist, stopped doing so. Around half started to vote for the perennial Davy Kettles in one of his various guises, or other small parties. But the other half just opted out.

On 23 January 1986, in the set of by-elections caused by the unionist protests against the Anglo-Irish Agreement, Ken Maginnis was re-elected with 27,857 votes (49.7%), despite the active participation of nationalist candidates (unlike in most other seats, where nationalists boycotted these by-elections – in Newry and South Armagh, however, Séamus Mallon snatched the seat from the unfortunate Jim Nicholson). Nationalism was split in FST, though, and Owen Carron got only 15,278 votes (27.2%), with Austin Currie (standing officially for the SDLP this time) getting 12,081 votes (21.5%). Davy Kettyles, still with the Workers' Party, got 864 votes (1.5%). The turnout was a low 80.9%, implying that neither side had really motivated their supporters.

On 11 June 1987, with an almost identical turnout (80.8%) in the general election Ken Maginnis retained the seat with 27,446 votes (49.6%). Carron, now on the run, was replaced as Sinn Féin candidate by Paul Corrigan, who got 14,623 votes (26.4%), while Rosemary Flanagan for the SDLP got 10,581 votes (19.1%) and Davy Kettyles, still WP, got 1,784 votes (3.2%). The Alliance Party, on another of its forays west, got 941 votes (1.7%) with John Haslett.

Nationalist – or more accurately, republican – demoralisation was approaching its nadir in FST in 1992. On 9 April 1992 Ken Maginnis walked home with 26,932 votes (48.4%), and unionists must have started thinking that this seat was theirs for ever more. Tommy Gallagher, for the SDLP, came in second with 12,810 votes (23.1%), and Sinn Féin managed only a third place, with Francie Molloy on 12,604 votes (22.9%). Davy Kettyles, now a 'Progressive Socialist', got 1,094 votes (1.9%), Eric Bullick, for the Alliance Party, got 950 votes (1.6%), and one of Kettyles erstwhile comrades, Gerry Cullen, standing for 'New Agenda' (a break-away from the Workers Party, and itself to become Democratic Left before merging with the (Irish) Labour Party) got 747 (1.2%).

In the 1995 boundary revision the constituency lost the heavily nationalist Coalisland area to Mid Ulster, thus reducing nationalism's hopes of recovering the seat, and probably reducing nationalist morale still further.

On 1 May 1997 Ken Maginnis again held 'his' seat, with 24,862 votes (51.5%), but Sinn Féin at least managed to overtake the SDLP – Gerry McHugh got 11,174 votes (23.1%), while Tommy Gallagher of the SDLP was close behind on 11,060 votes (22.9%). Stephen Farry, for the Alliance Party, got 977 votes (2.0%), and Simeon Gillan wasted a deposit for the Natural Law Party, getting 217 votes (0.5%). Turnout (74.8%) was slipping, though, perhaps reflecting a lessening of the tensions of earlier elections.

However, those FST swings and roundabouts should never be forgotten. On 7 June 2001 Sinn Féin dramatically won the seat by 53 votes. Michelle Gildernew got 17,739 votes (34.1%), but thanks to the intervention of an independent unionist the UUP candidate James Cooper got only 17,686 votes (34.0%). Tommy Gallagher of the SDLP got 9,706 votes (18.7%), which would ordinarily have been enough to ensure a unionist victory, but nobody foresaw the significant increase in the nationalist vote – from 22,234 in 1997 to 27,445 in 2001. Jim Dixon, the Independent Unionist, got 6,843 votes (13.2%) - and the life-long disapproval of the other unionists.

The increase in the nationalist vote appeared to mark the end of the nationalist demoralisation in FST. The turnout recovered, to 79.0%, and this appears to have been entirely due to nationalists returning to the polling booths – the unionist vote declined slightly.
The reason for the end of nationalist demoralisation is as little-known as that for its beginning. Perhaps the Good Friday Agreement electrified nationalism – but it was already three years old in 2001, and already experiencing unionist obstructiveness. In any case, despite the return to nationalism of a proportion of the electorate, the general tendency, in nationalism as in unionism, was towards apathy. The graph berlow shows the nationalist and unionist shares of the electorate (i.e. all of those eligible to vote):

On 5 May 2005 Michelle Gildernew retained the seat in a four-way race. Both nationalism and unionism had split votes. Gildernew got 18,638 votes (38.2%), the DUP's Arlene Foster got 14,056 votes (28.8%), the UUP's Tom Elliott got 8,869 votes (18.2%) and the SDLP's Tommy Gallagher got 7,230 votes (14.8%). The nationalist-unionist split widened slightly, to 53%/47%.

After the 2005 elections the boundary commission changed some constituencies, but left FST unchanged.

In 2010 unionists in FST had learned a valuable lesson – if they split their vote, they could never win the seat. Sinn Féin's lead amongst nationalists was greater than that of either of the unionist parties within their block. So an intense effort was made to 'resolve' this problem on the unionist side. There were early offers by the DUP to stand aside in favour of a unity candidate, but the UCUNF project had announced that it intended to stand in every seat, regardless of other factors. As the election campaign progressed, there were increasingly desperate attempts by the DUP to break the UCUNF resolve. The fact that the UUP's main standard-bearer in the constituency appeared not to share UCUNF's determination to stand gave it support. And, of course, that campaign worked – UCUNF backed down, and Tom Elliott, the wavering UUP man, was pivotal in helping to select a 'unionist unity' candidate – Rodney Connor – who was a member of neither party, and critically, not a member of UCUNF. His selection made liars out of the Tories, and possibly helped to repel almost as many voters elsewhere as he attracted in FST.
And, of course, the rest is history. Despite 'unionist unity' against a divided nationalism, Gildernew won. The nationalist voters in FST were determined not to be outmanoeuvred by the unionist minority, and plumped for Gildernew, giving her a 4 vote majority – the subject of Connor's current legal challenge.

The result on 6 May 2010 was Michelle Gildernew 21,304 votes (45.5%), Rodney Connor 21,300 votes (45.5%), the SDLP's Fearghal McKinney 3,574 votes (7.6%), the Alliance Party's Vasundhara Kamble 437 votes (0.9%), and Independent John Stevenson 188 (0.4%)Despite the high profile of the contest, and the emotions it aroused, the turnout was only 69.3%.
It is interesting to note that, as a result of the falling turnout in the constituency, nationalism attracts fewer actual votes than unionism ever did before 1997. The drop in turnout appears to be affecting both blocks roughly equally, but if turnout rates became decoupled the outcome would be hard to predict.

The British government's proposed reforms to the electoral system will make FST both easier and harder to predict in the future. Easier in the sense that the Alternative Vote (AV) system will make 'unity' candidates obsolete. If votes remain in their 'blocks' then there is no danger to either block if they compete amongst themselves – and by offering a genuine choice within each block such competition may actually increase the (first-preference) vote of the block. The nature of FST is such that transfers would tend to remain in the block, and thus the winner will almost always come from within the largest block – and will thus be a nationalist. Tactical voting by unionists, however, may help decide which nationalist wins.

The other proposed reform involves reducing the number of constituencies. FST, nestled up against the border, will remain largely untouched, though the precise parts of South Tyrone that are attached to Fermanagh may be changed. It is hard to see this changing the balance except in nationalism's favour. The part of West Tyrone (Westminster constituency) bordering the current FST constituency is the West Tyrone DEA of Omagh district, which is quite heavily nationalist. The intention is to create constituencies of around 70,000 electors, and FST currently has almost 68,000, so it may emerge unscathed.

2010 is thus unlikely to represent the last election to the FST Westminster constituency, unless the reforms are more radical than expected. The constituency will continue to arouse passion for some time to come.

The battle for 1916

In Ireland anniversaries matter, and in the republican calendar none matter more than 1916. As this blog pointed out in November 2009, the country faces a decade of centenaries, with 2016 being a particularly important one. The southern establishment seems to have decided that it needs to reclaim 'ownership' of the key dates in the struggle for partial independence.

Part of the reason why the southern ('official republican') establishment wanted to reclaim the past was to stop the more shadowy dissident republican groups claiming it.

Today the Irish Times has published a letter from Des Dalton, President of Republican Sinn Féin, in which he stakes his party's claim to 1916:
"Madam, – Speaking in UCD on May 20th, the head of the 26-county administration Brian Cowen accused Irish republicans of seeking to “hijack” the centenary of the 1916 Rising (Home News, May 20th). It is an accusation that does not stand up; republicans cannot hijack something they have never abandoned. Irish republicans will commemorate the centenary of 1916 as well as the anniversaries of the other landmark events in Irish revolutionary history, just as we have in the past.

Each year Irish republicans both in Ireland and abroad have commemorated 1916 without fail. The 26-county state on the other hand has alternated between ignoring the anniversary and banning commemoration of it. 1916 commemorations throughout the 26 counties were banned by the Dublin administration in 1937. In 1976 republicans were prosecuted – including Fiona Plunkett sister of Joseph Mary Plunkett – and some jailed for their participation in a banned commemoration at the GPO. Each year republicans face the prospect of prosecution for selling Easter lilys.

For 40 years the 26-county administration ignored the anniversary of 1916, but since 2006 it has opportunistically seized on it in order to sell the big lie that history has come to an end and British rule in Ireland is now accepted.

1916 remains unfinished business while Britain holds any part of Ireland.

The message of 1916 could not be clearer; “Ireland unfree shall never be at peace”. – Yours, etc,"
The next few years will be crucial for dissident republicanism. If it fails to exploit the past – and usurp ownership of it – it will become increasingly irrelevant. But faced with the 'big guns' of the southern establishment and the two main northern nationalist parties, they will struggle to be heard. The southern state will hold increasingly confident celebrations, helped by academia, the media and its monopoly of diplomacy – and the dissidents will look pathetic in comparison.

The single best hope for the dissidents is that some of Ireland's contrarians will provide them with space. Already the 'contrarian-in-chief', Kevin Myers (ex-Irish Times, now Irish Independent columnist) has signalled loudly that he will use his undeniably powerful writing skills to counter the celebration of the Easter Rising, the war of Independence, and anything else that nationalism holds dear. By doing so, of course, he will spark a reaction that will play right into the hands of the dissidents.

The other main contrarians on the island are, of course, the unionists – in so far as they systematically act and speak counter to the prevailing nationalist discourse. However, the unionist position is old, predictable and discounted by most people on the nationalist side of the fence. So when Nelson McCausland uses his position as Minister of Culture to try to pour cold water on the commemorations, nobody will be surprised or even very interested.

The battle for 1916 will be fought within the nationalist family, and so far it is shaping up to be extremely one-sided. As Republican Sinn Féin (and it's comrades-in-arms, the Continuity IRA) appear to be suffering from internal tensions (as reported in the Irish News, for which no link is available, but which is quoted on the Slugger O'Toole blog), there may not even be a coherent 'dissident republican' organisation left by 2016. This would be no great loss.

1916 was history, and its context was widely different from today's. Nationalist Ireland should remember 1916 with pride and with interest, but should not try to map its context onto that of 2016. Instead it should gather the memories of the Home Rule struggle, the Rising, the War of Independence, the civil war, and so on, and commemorate them as past events, while dealing in a 21st century manner with the issues of the 21st century. One of the essential requirements, of course, is that groups like Republican Sinn Féin, which seek to refight the battles of the past, must be marginalised. In that respect, the decision of the southern state to reclaim its past is the right one.

Friday 28 May 2010

Boo hoo!

So Bobby Moffat, a member of the Red Hand Commando, has been shot dead.

Matthew verse 26:52 is the appropriate biblical quotation for those of a religious nature.

This blog is irreligious, but shares the sentiment.

One less blood-stained loyalist scumbag on the streets of Belfast can only be a good thing. The reporters who reported on his death knew who he was and what he was - why were they so silent while he was alive? Whose deaths was he responsible for? Which families still grieve because of his sadism? Journalistic collusion is no better than police collusion.

Who killed him? Which loyalist group kept the guns that they claimed to have decommissioned? Will Moffatt's brothers in brutality respond in kind? Hopefully. But hopefully they will kill only other loyalists. Lots of them.

Thursday 27 May 2010

What an embarrassment

Margaret Ritchie, a so-called Irish nationalist:

When an old woman dies

There may be a secret injunction that prevents the discussion of the following issue, or maybe people just feel uncomfortable even thinking about it, but it is time the silence was broken.

There is an old woman called Elizabeth – many people may have seen her still at work this week. Unlike many of us she cannot retire – like the Pope she will die in office. She is now 84 years old, but longevity in not unknown in her family – her mother lived to be 101. Nonetheless, the life expectancy for females in the region in which she lives is around 83. If you add a few years for good behaviour, and the best medical care that other people’s taxes can buy, she will certainly exceed the average – but by how many years?

When she dies – and she will – what will the impact be, particularly in Northern Ireland? For many people she is the only head of the British state that they have known – she started work when Stalin still ruled the Soviet Union, and has outlasted almost every other head of state in the world. She inherited her job in the aftermath of World War II, a time when Britain still had an empire and delusions of power.

The nationalist side of the north's population – certainly younger members – will not be greatly upset by her death. But the unionist side, especially the large numbers of old unionists who identify more closely with the glory days of empire, might see her death as the end of an era.

For many unionists she provides continuity with the past, and with a time when unionism was undoubtedly dominant. But 58 years on, much has changed – the empire is gone, and Britain is barely a middle-ranking European country. Northern Ireland, so unionist in 1952, is now more evenly balanced.

For many, the mere act of transfer – the famous ‘the king is dead, long live the king’ moment – will be revolutionary, and will cause them to stop and ask whether this is really the best model for the 21st century. At a time when the hereditary House of Lords is being seriously re-thought, can the questioning of a hereditary head of state be far behind?

No doubt some unionists will use the death of their Queen as an opportunity to try to promote their view of the world. Some will be genuinely upset – and the Princess Diana effect, where people experience some connection with a celebrity who they have never actually known, will no doubt reappear. Every unionist-controlled council will pass the obligatory obsequious motion of devoted loyalty, and they will try to brow-beat nationalists to join in. Nationalists, if they are polite, will express sympathy on the death of the British head of state, but will hopefully resist all the unionist attempts to drag them to their knees. Nationalist Ireland should let its President represent it, with all the pomp and formality that she wishes.

Elizabeth is a strictly formal figurehead who has never put a foot wrong, but her heir, Charles, is less revered by unionists, and for the more religious amongst them he is anathema thanks to his somewhat salacious private life. Paradoxically, he is probably more popular with nationalists that Elizabeth is – he can, and does, visit the south with no problem and is well received there.

Attempts to transfer the carefully constructed loyalty to Elizabeth to her son may not succeed, however – even amongst unionists. The death of Elizabeth may represent another irreversible step in Northern Ireland’s parting from Britain. Charles will not occupy the ‘sainted’ position that his mother currently occupies. The monarchy will become more head of state than god.

And if Charles cannot win the hearts of Northern Ireland’s unionists, then where will their loyalty lie? It is often said that they owe their loyalty to the crown as an institution rather than just a person. But if they do not respect the personification of that crown, how can they truly be loyal to it?

Wednesday 26 May 2010


That's 'Anything But Celtic' – and must be the new McCausland family motto, judging by the Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure.

Nelson McCausland – the DUP Minister in question – has just made a fool of himself (again) for writing to Northern Ireland's museums asking them to give more prominence to Ulster-Scots, the Orange Order and 'alternative views on the origin of the universe'.

The first two are, of course, uncontroversial – both are part of what Northern Ireland is, after all. But the third item on McCausland's wish list brings him into the realm of the nutter, and makes him an object of ridicule amongst intelligent people in Northern Ireland and elsewhere.
"Without specifically mentioning creationism, Mr McCausland's letter includes a request for the trustees to consider how alternative views of the origin of the universe can be recognised and accommodated".

He has already been publicly dismissed by Richard Dawkins, and will undoubtedly be the object of as much ridicule as his fellow-DUP 'young earther' Edwin Poots.

But there is more to McCausland than merely an incomprehensible belief in creationism – he is trying his best to use his position to advance his own segment of Northern Ireland's society (the Orange, Protestant and Ulster-Scots segment), and to block the recognition of the other segment, the Gaelic, Celtic, Catholic one.

On his own blog (yes, even creationists can use the internet!) he expends considerable energy trying to dispel the notion that Northern Ireland is a 'Celtic' country, or that it forms part of the 'Celtic fringe':

Yesterday: "… we are not a Celtic country in a linguistic sense. Neither are we a Celtic country in an ethnic sense … The use of the term 'Celtic countries' is therefore erroneous."

In April: "The Celtic Media Festival has been taking place this week in Newry and I was invited by Cathal Goan to attend and officially open the annual festival. … Towards the end and in the context of some remarks about a 'shared and better future' I referred to the way in which the festival organisers described the participating countries as 'Celtic nations'. If we are to recongise and respect the cultural diversity of Northern Ireland, is it appropriate to describe us as a Celtic nation? Yes, there are some people who speak a Celtic language and there are many people who will regard themselves as culturally Celtic or even ethnically Celtic but that represents only one element in our diversity. Is there not a need for a terminology that recognises that important fact?"

The Minister appears to have a bit of a bee in his bonnet about the 'Celticness' of Northern Ireland. 'Celticness' itself is a fairly controversial concept, but in general refers to those areas in which that area's own Celtic languages and cultural traits have survived. According to such a definition Northern Ireland certainly has a very good claim to be Celtic. The area was almost exclusively Irish Gaelic before being 'planted' by a mixture of English and Scots – many also of evident Gaelic ancestry – in the 17th century. Nobody denies that there are many people in Northern Ireland whose ancestry includes other origins, but this is true in the south, and in Britain. Should England stop being called 'English' because there are other elements in its diversity? Or France French because of its North African immigrants?

The real irony in this, of course, is that the Minister carries a Gaelic surname, and thus cannot deny the Celticness of his own paternal line.

One definition of the name McCausland is: probably a variant of MacAuslan, which according to Black is an Anglicization of Mac Ausaláin ‘son of Absolom’, from the name of an early 13th-century cleric. However, there may rather be an underlying Gaelic personal name, possibly Caisealán, meaning ‘little one of the castle’.

Is the Minister suffering from a case of autophobia?

Quality of living

Everyone – republican or unionist – claims to share a desire to improve the quality of life for the whole of the society in which they live. Definitions of what comprises a high or low quality of life can vary, of course – hence the differences in the republican and unionist approaches – but it is useful to take note of assessments carried out by organisations without any local political interest.

Today, for example, Mercer, a global HR and financial consultancy published its Quality of Living index which covers 221 cities worldwide, including Ireland's two (real) cities, Belfast and Dublin.

The rankings are based on a point-scoring index, which sees first-placed Vienna score 108.6 and worst-placed Baghdad 14.7. Cities are ranked against New York as the base city, with an index score of 100.

Living conditions are analysed according to 39 factors, grouped in 10 categories:
  • Political and social environment (political stability, crime, law enforcement, etc)
  • Economic environment (currency exchange regulations, banking services, etc)
  • Socio-cultural environment (censorship, limitations on personal freedom, etc)
  • Health and sanitation (medical supplies and services, infectious diseases, sewage, waste disposal, air pollution, etc)
  • Schools and education (standard and availability of international schools, etc)
  • Public services and transportation (electricity, water, public transport, traffic congestion, etc)
  • Recreation (restaurants, theatres, cinemas, sports and leisure, etc)
  • Consumer goods (availability of food/daily consumption items, cars, etc)
  • Housing (housing, household appliances, furniture, maintenance services, etc)
  • Natural environment (climate, record of natural disasters)
European cities dominate amongst the top 25 cities in the index, reflecting the fairly high levels of development and social provision that are part of the European model.

However, for Ireland's two cities the situation is mixed. Dublin ranks at number 26 worldwide – better than any city in the USA or the UK (New York is placed 49, London 39). But Belfast comes in at number 63better than Athens, but is that really the best point of comparison?

Ireland's cities should do better. Clearly it is hard to compete on criteria like climate, when Auckland, Perth and Sydney are in the race, but since Ireland has no record of natural disasters and ought to have excellent levels of social provision, medical and educational provision and recreation, there is room for improvement.

All politicians, from every tradition, should see the Quality of Living index as a challenge, and should focus their efforts on moving our cities up the rankings until Ireland achieves Top 10 status.

There is one small piece of good news for Belfast buried in the Mercer's press release – in the parallel Eco-City ranking (based on water availability, water potability, waste removal, sewage, air pollution and traffic congestion) it comes in at number 30 worldwide – ahead of Dublin which is at number 33. There is definitely work to be done here too, of course, and all of these issues are entirely the responsibility of locally elected politicians – the climate or natural factors do not play a part.

Wake up, Ireland's politicians, and take the decisions necessary to bring our cities up to the level of Switzerland, Scandinavia and the antipodes!