Sunday 28 February 2010

Hillsborough deadlines

The transfer of policing and justice (P+J) is as usual stuck in a perpetual limbo. This weekend’s DUP excuse for delaying it is (almost) laughable. Nigel Dodds says that:

“… his party would not be able to proceed with the devolution of justice if it does not get Ulster Unionist backing”.
In other words, Dodds wants unionism to speak with one voice on the issue, despite his own party’s commitments. But then again, Dodds seems pretty desperate for unionist unity these days – perhaps in order to save his own North Belfast seat?

Nonetheless, aside from P+J there are a few other issues to consider. The Hillsborough agreement had a few other deadlines, including the important one of parading – i.e. Orange Order marches. The ‘agreed outcomes’ of the SF-DUP working group are, as yet unpublished, but work should already have started on drafting a Bill to put them into force. No doubt they will leak before long.

There is also the Working Group chaired by Junior Ministers Kelly and Newton and involving all of the Parties in the Executive which is overseeing an exercise of trawling for and identifying all Executive papers and decisions which are still pending. This Working Group is supposed to “provide a report to the Executive detailing the level of progress made on each outstanding matter” and making “recommendations on whether and how progress could be made on any and all outstanding matters” by the end of February. That is today – where is this report?

Lastly – but not ‘leastly’ – there is the crucial issue of identifying and identifying all matters contained within the St Andrews Agreement “which have not been faithfully implemented or actioned”. “The First Minister and deputy First Minister will provide a report to the Executive by the end of February detailing the level of progress made on each outstanding matter”. That also is due today, so where is the report?

It seems that the Hillsborough deadlines are largely not being met, and those that appear to be met are clouded in secrecy. Is Hillsborough going to be just another failed agreement along Northern Ireland’s long political road? Is Northern Ireland ever going to show that it is not a ‘failed political entity’?

Fermanagh – UCUNF’s Alamo

The News Letter reports that:

“Private talks between the Ulster Unionists and the DUP in Fermanagh are understood to be continuing, despite the UUP-Conservative alliance moving to finalise 17 of its 18 candidates within days.

It is understood that local engagement between the two parties has continued regardless of Tory insistence that the Conservatives and Unionists will run in every constituency across the Province.”
On Thursday this blog reported on the approaches made to Norman Baxter, and speculated that there was something afoot in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Yesterday’s New Letter proves that speculation to have been correct.

Fermanagh and South Tyrone risks becoming UCUNF’s Alamo – either they stand their ground, or they fall. If the Tories break their pledge – that UCUNF would stand in all 18 constituencies – then they will show themselves to be untrustworthy – and worse, if they allow themselves to be part of an old-fashioned tribal battle, they will show that they are not, as they claim, bringing anything new to Northern Irish politics.

A unionist pact or a ‘unionist unity’ candidate, if endorsed by the Tories simply puts them full-square in the unionist tribal camp. In which case they may as well just pack up and go home again, because Northern Ireland already has enough tribal unionist parties.

Friday 26 February 2010

South Down – Eddie McGrady steps down

So after a lot of speculation concerning his future intentions, South Down MP Eddie McGrady has finally announced that he will not stand again this year.

The immediate question is who will replace him – as SDLP candidate, and as MP.

His decision to stand down may have been made as a result of Margaret Ritchie's election as leader of the SDLP – she is, after all, from South Down, and now that she is leader of the SDLP it may seem appropriate that she is 'elevated' to Westminster like Mark Durkan before her.

However, it is too early yet to say if that is Ritchie's wish or intention – the SDLP are irrelevant in Westminster, and their band of MPs there is small and may get smaller this year. Trying to lead the party from virtually solitary isolation in Westminster when increasingly the action is in Belfast would be difficult, frustrating and probably counter-productive.

However, the SDLP's continued hold on South Down is not guaranteed.

In 2005 Eddie McGrady retained the seat with a large lead over his rival, Caitriona Ruane of Sinn Féin – he received 44.7% of the vote compared with Ruane's 25.8%. But a part of that vote was clearly personal, because two years later, in the 2007 Assembly elections the SDLP as a whole received only 31.4% of the vote – barely more than the Sinn Féin total of 30.7%. And in 2007 Ruane actually polled more personal votes than Ritchie – 13.7% of the total, to Richie's 12.7%.

Clearly Ritchie's increased profile as new leader of the SDLP will help her, as will strategic voting from unionists. McGrady probably received around 1000 'unionist' votes – people who knew that a unionist candidate could not win, but wanted to ensure that Sinn Féin did not. In 2007 the unionist vote (and % of the total vote) recovered, as in a multi-seat constituency with STV PR there was no need to vote strategically, at least where the first preferences are concerned.

The reality, though, is that this is an SDLP stronghold, and the SDLP should retain the seat, with or without strategic voting from unionists – though there is little doubt that there will be such strategic voting. Unionism has no hope whatsoever of winning back the seat – the combined unionist vote, 28.2% in 2005 and 31.8% in 2007, is insufficient to beat either nationalist candidate except in exceptional circumstances.

If Ritchie does not seek or get the SDLP nomination, it may go to one of the other leading SDLP members in the constituency – however the two obvious 'next choices', PJ Bradley and Eamonn O'Neill, are both probably too old to consider starting a Westminster career – they will be respectively 70 and 66 this year. The SDLP seem to have an age issue in South Down – all of their leading members are at or close to retirement. They have a good number of district councillors in the area, but it could be risky putting up someone who is little-known outside their own locality against a name as prominent as Caitriona Ruane. Perhaps, despite any personal preference of her own, Ritchie may feel obliged to stand here in the Westminster election.

Thursday 25 February 2010

UCUNF, Catholics, and the other nine seats

So, nine of the 18 Westminster seats have their named UCUNF contenders, and nine don't. However, the UCUNF promise was not just to stand in all 18 seats, but also to bring a 'new non-sectarian' politics with them. An implicit part of this promise was that there would be Catholic candidates standing for UCUNF. The nine named yesterday are, to the best knowledge of this blog, either Protestants or 'from the Protestant community'. So that leaves the nine other constituencies to provide the Tories with their Catholic candidate(s).

However, the two Catholic candidates that the Tories so proudly paraded before the world in October 2009 resigned earlier this year citing their disgust at the prospect of an electoral deal between UCUNF and the DUP.

Assuming they don't come back – and Sheila Davidson's chosen constituency, Lagan Valley, has just been handed to Daphne Trimble by UCUNF – that leaves the Tories, and UCUNF, currently with no Catholic candidates whatsoever.

What of the nine remaining constituencies? Could one or more of them play host to an as-yet-unknown Catholic Tory?

North Down – No, this seat has been earmarked for (Protestant) Ian Parsley. Even if the UUP steal it back, the two UUP contenders (Johnny Andrews and Bill McKendry) are both also Protestant.

Fermanagh and South Tyrone – There is slim-to-no-chance that the Tories will pull a local Catholic rabbit out of their hat. The UUP's Tom Elliott is a Protestant, and the unionist voters of the area are unlikely to take kindly to the bussing-in of a Catholic 'celebrity candidate'.

East Derry – No, the UUP contender is Lesley Macauley, an unknown, but probably not a Catholic (or they would have said so). In any case, she is simply keeping the UUP side of the bargain – the candidacy is almost certainly going to Duncan Crossey, another Protestant.

That leaves the three 'Antrims' – North, South, and East – two 'Belfasts' – South and North – and Foyle. The Tories 'big thing' was that they had found a west Belfast Catholic – and one connected to the popular Top Gear TV show too – to stand in South Belfast. But he has gone, probably not to come back. There simply are no other 'big names' for the Tories to stand. Tories are rare in Northern Ireland, and Catholic Tories even rarer.

So the Tories have a difficult decision to make. Do they stand an unknown just because he/she is a Catholic – thereby being sectarian to show that they aren't sectarian – or do they allow their actual members to stand? If Sheila Davidson returns to the fold she could be accommodated not far from her Lagan Valley home – in South Antrim, for example, or even South Belfast. But it would be hard to imagine Catholic Tories standing – or being successful – in North or East Antrim or North Belfast.

The most likely seat for the Tories to stand a Catholic in – if they can find one in a hurry – is Foyle. It is a majority Catholic constituency to start with, and carries no risk of loss as it is currently held by the SDLP. The UUP nominee would be no problem to side-line since he is not local.

However, if the Tories do not find a Catholic to stand for them, at least one part of their promise will have been broken.

Will Fermanagh make a liar of Cameron?

The list of nine candidates endorsed by UCUNF yesterday did not, of course, include Fermanagh and South Tyrone, despite the prior nomination by the UUP of Tom Elliott for the candidacy.

The Tories are all but non-existent in Fermanagh and South Tyrone – the only time in recent history that they have stood in the constituency was in 1996, when they won 113 votes (0.23%). So there is very little demand in the constituency for a Tory candidate, and thus very little reason for the UCUNF candidate to be a Tory.

So why did Elliott not get the official endorsement yesterday, along with the 'nine'?

Could the reason be that, behind the scenes and despite the denials there are still efforts underway to find a 'unionist unity' candidate for the constituency?

Recent reports suggest that Norman Baxter, an ex-RUC and PSNI detective (responsible for the Omagh bomb investigation) has been 'approached' to stand. But Baxter has let it be known that he 'is only interested in standing as a candidate in this year's Westminster election if he feels it is on the basis of cross-community support'. That fairly much rules out any chance of him standing as a 'unionist unity' candidate.

But the approaches to Baxter, and probably to others, imply that the parties – UUP as well as DUP – are still trying to agree a pact to take Fermanagh and South Tyrone. The failure to endorse Elliott yesterday tends to confirm this.

The Fermanagh Herald goes on to say that: "It is understood discussions are still ongoing to find either a unity candidate or to form an electoral pact between the Ulster Unionists and the DUP".

A pact in Fermanagh and South Tyrone would break the clear undertaking from the Tories, including David Cameron, that they, in partnership with the UUP, would field candidates in all 18 constituencies:

"David Cameron […] says that he is determined to field general election candidates, in co-operation with Ulster Unionists, in all 18 of Northern Ireland’s Westminster constituencies".
The only possible outcome under which Cameron and the Tories can retain their honour is a candidate who carries the 'Conservative and Unionist' label. Elliott was prepared to be that candidate, so why was he not endorsed?

It is becoming clear that something is afoot in Fermanagh and South Tyrone – the aim is presumably to recruit a new and 'untainted' candidate who would be sufficiently acceptable to the DUP that they would stand down – and this candidate would agree to stand under Cameron's banner. Hence the approach to Baxter. Who will be the next choice?

And if they cannot come up with an acceptable person (and there cannot be a large pool of such people in Fermanagh and South Tyrone), will they revert to the hapless Elliott and face the almost-certainty of a DUP candidate, a split unionist vote, and a Sinn Féin re-election?

Schools Census 2009-2010

Regular readers of this blog will know that the Schools Census is an annual survey of all pupils in Northern Ireland's schools. One of the items of information it gathers is the religion of the pupils. (See previous blogs on the Schools Census: 2007, 2008, 2009)

Like the decennial census, the Schools Census is important in that it provides a glimpse of what the religious breakdown of the future will look like. Today's school children are, of course, tomorrow's voters. Given Northern Ireland's politico-religious divide, it is likely that today's Protestant children are tomorrow's unionist voters, and today's Catholic children are tomorrow's nationalist voters.

This year's Schools Census - published today - adds to a series going back over a decade, and thus permits the trend to be followed, as well as this year's snap-shot.

As in the decennial census, there are large numbers of children whose religion cannot be ascertained, or who genuinely do not have one. In order to estimate how these children may identify in terms of Northern Ireland's 'community' division, this blog has, this year, recalculated all of the results since 1998 using the outcome of the methodology that NISRA applied in the 2001 Census. In other words, the 'None/Not stated' children are 'allocated' to the different options (Catholic, Protestant and Other Christian, Non-Christian, and None) in the same proportions that NISRA allocated children and teenagers in its calculation of 'Table S306: Age By Community Background (Religion Or Religion Brought Up In)'. This was:
  • For children aged 5-11, those who were declared as 'None/Not Stated': 24.3% to 'Catholic', 40.0% to 'Protestant and other Christian', 0.5% to 'Non-Christian, and 35.2% to 'None'.
  • For children aged 12-18, those who were declared as 'None/Not Stated': 25.4% to 'Catholic', 46.5% to 'Protestant and other Christian', 0.5% to 'Non-Christian, and 27.6% to 'None'.
The resulting series is shown in the graph below:

It shows clearly that the proportion of children who are from a Catholic community background is over 50%, and has been over 50% for over a decade. The proportion from a Protestant community background had hovered at around 45% for around a decade.

Since 2005, though, the Protestant proportion of schoolchildren has visibly declined, and now stands at 43.8% (of the adjusted figures. They form only 40.4% of the raw figures!). At primary level the Protestant proportion is lower than at secondary (43.3% against 44.3% of the adjusted figures), showing that the decline is set to continue. The difference between one year's schools census and the next is almost entirely due to the difference between the exit cohort (those who were counted in year N, but no longer in year N+1), and the entry cohort (those too young for school in year N, but in P1 in year N+1). Of the 14 age cohorts counted each year, only two contribute to change, and 12 are counted in the previous and following years. So a visibly declining Protestant share, year on year, implies that the entry cohort is significantly less Protestant than the exit cohort – the difference between two age-cohorts is sufficient to produce a visible effect on the whole 14 age-cohort population.

The conclusion is, of course, that Catholics are more numerous than Protestants at all ages under 18 – and have been for the whole period covered. In fact, children from a Catholic community background form an absolute majority of children, and have since the series began in 1998. More even - Catholic children form a majority even before the figures are adjusted to 'allocate' the unstated.

The consequences for the wider population, and vitally the electorate, are obvious. If Catholics continue to vote overwhelmingly for nationalist parties, then the new voters coming into the electorate have been majority nationalist for quite some time. As they age, they will contribute to the 'greening' of the electorate, unless significant numbers vote for unionist or centre parties. However, despite claims to the contrary by some unionists, there is no evidence of any 'Catholic unionist' vote – or if it exists it is equally matched by a Protestant nationalist vote.

As is so often said, our children are our future. Our children are increasingly Catholic, so what does that say about our future?

The UCUNF Team – first picks

The BBC has announced that nine of the 18 UCUNF candidates for the Westminster election have now been jointly selected.

They are:
  • Strangford – Mike Nesbitt
  • Lagan Valley – Daphne Trimble
  • Newry and Armagh – Danny Kennedy
  • South Down – John McAlister
  • Upper Bann – Harry Hamilton
  • Mid Ulster – Sandra Overend
  • West Tyrone – Ross Hussey
  • West Belfast – Bill Manwaring
  • East Belfast – Trevor Ringland
The obvious thing about these nine is that they are all from the UUP. So this means that the Tories candidates (and there must be some) will have to stand in the remaining nine constituencies.

It is already well leaked that Alliance turncoat Ian Parsley will get the nomination for North Down, especially now that Sylvia Hermon has ruled herself out of standing for UCUNF.

Fermanagh and South Tyrone contains few Tories and it would thus be totally counterproductive to pass over local UUP hopeful Tom Elliott, so that one can almost certainly be added to the UUP total.

Since that effectively rules out almost everywhere west of the Bann, the Tories may be keen to stand in Foyle, just to demonstrate that they have not given up on the west of Northern Ireland before they even start. The fact that the UUP proposed candidate is not even from the constituency (he lives in Portballintrae!) will help.

East Derry too is likely to see a Tory candidate – Duncan Crossey – especially as the UUP nominated a virtually unknown party member, Lesley Macauley, so have little reason to insist on her.

That leaves five other constituencies: North Antrim, South Antrim, East Antrim, South Belfast and North Belfast. It is no surprise that these have been left till last, as they contain some of the most sensitive seats for the DUP. No doubt some hard thinking is going on in UUP and Tory circles about the right strategy for some of these seats, to avoid letting them fall to Sinn Féin or the TUV.

North Antrim is an obvious example. Jim Allister has announced that he will stand here, with the express intention of decapitating the DUP. The seat is a target both for the TUV and the UUP, either of which could on a good day slip between a badly split DUP vote to take the seat. Whether the UUP will wish to surrender such a chance to the Tories, who are almost (but not entirely) entirely absent from the constituency, is as yet unknown.

South Antrim is a more sensitive issue. The UUP have proposed Adrian Watson, who is a known homophobe – which goes against recent Tory pronouncements – and was involved in the disgraceful episode in 2009 when unionist bigots complained when children in GAA tops packed bags in Tesco. Watson claims that he did not actually complain, but the BBC reported that he "had passed complaints on to Tesco on behalf of some of his constituents". If it walks like a duck … So Watson's candidacy may be in doubt if the Tories decide that they do not want to be represented by an old-style UUP bigot. There is an opening here for the Tories to propose, say, Tim Collins – a name that would attract DUP votes, and may cause the TUV to rethink their intention to stand in the constituency.

East Antrim is a curious absence from today's UCUNF list. The Tories are not particularly popular here (as elsewhere in Northern Ireland), but it is the constituency of their chairman, Tim Lewis. So perhaps they are playing hard-ball on this one in order to get something elsewhere.

South Belfast, of course, is the constituency in which the Tories have already been embarrassed by the withdrawal of their celebrity Catholic candidate, Peter McCann. Presumably there are attempts behind the scenes to persuade him to come back. If they succeed, then he will presumably get the UCUNF candidacy, and the UUP's Paula Bradshaw will have to try her hand at local politics.

North Belfast, as this blog pointed out yesterday, is a very sensitive issue. The UUP have already nominated Fred Cobain, but he has been their man in the area for a while and poses no particular threat to Nigel Dodds of the DUP. But if the Tories find a credible candidate here who can improve on Cobain's poor score, then the seat just might fall to Gerry Kelly. One option is to stand Tim Lewis who comes from Newtownabbey and thus can claim to be local. He would score abysmally, of course, but this would save the Tories (and indirectly also the UUP) from being seen as helping Sinn Féin's chances in the constituency.

The announcement by UCUNF of its picks for the remaining nine constituencies will be interesting. This blog expects that the Tories will get the UCUNF candidacy in at least three: Foyle, East Derry and North Down, but must also get one or two more in the greater Belfast area – including at least one that is winnable. Whether they actually win it (or any seats) is far harder to say.

Wednesday 24 February 2010

And again Dodds appeals for salvation

Breaking news from the DUP:
DUP Deputy Leader Nigel Dodds MP has reiterated his party’s belief in Unionist unity and co-operation. The DUP MP said that by working together Unionists could ensure that South Belfast and Fermanagh and South Tyrone were returned to the pro-Union fold.
But not a word about Dodds’ own local problem – North Belfast – the real reason why he wants ‘unionist unity’.

“Today, it has emerged that the UUP were prepared to seek some breach of the UCUNF arrangement in order to try and keep Lady Hermon on board and running as a UUP candidate. If they were prepared to do this in an 80+% Unionist constituency like North Down where there is no prospect whatsoever of a nationalist being elected, they should do likewise in South Belfast and Fermanagh and South Tyrone.”
But what about a constituency where unionism has a mere 47.0% of the vote (2007 Assembly election), compared to nationalism’s 44.3%. In the last Westminster election (2005) unionism managed 52.7% to nationalism’s 44.8%, but it is close and getting closer!

In 1992 nationalism got only 34.2% of the vote in North Belfast; in 1997 40.6%; in 2001 it got 46.2% (in the absence of an Alliance candidate).

The constituency is getting greener, and the age profile of Dodds’ voters (almost entirely Protestant) is unfavourable – they are very much older than the average, and new voters reaching 18 in North Belfast are more likely to be Catholic than Protestant. The last thing Dodds needs in a split unionist vote!

This blog has previously predicted that Dodds has, at best, one more electoral victory in North Belfast before his days – and those of unionist dominance in the constituency – are over. But if the TUV and the UUP (disguised as UCUNF) split the unionist vote sufficiently in 2010 his days might be over sooner than expected. If Gerry Kelly improves on his 2005 vote (28.6%) if Fred Cobain improves on his pathetic 7.1% (with the help of Tory cash), and if the TUV stand in the constituency, the result will be unpredictable.

So Dodds, more than any other DUP MP, wants and needs unionist unity – and a pact that allows him a clear run.

Pan-nationalism revived

Margaret Ritchie, newly elected leader of the SDLP 'has re-affirmed her party's nationalism, implicitly moving away from suggestions of any sort of Assembly link with the Ulster Unionists and Alliance Party'.

This puts a small spanner in the works for those who had hoped to prise the SDLP away from Sinn Féin, and to co-opt them into a 'voluntary coalition' arrangement, the sole purpose of which would be to permanently exclude Sinn Féin from power.

Ritchie's rival, Alasdair McDonnell, was known to favour closer cooperation between the SDLP and the UUP and Alliance to form a 'centrist' group in the Assembly. In such a scenario, of course, the SDLP could have been enticed by its new unionist 'friends' to accept a place in a voluntary coalition, and Sinn Féin – in the dreams of unionists – would have been cast out into the darkness. Unionism would have made up the lion's share of the voluntary coalition, and thus would have held the majority of the posts and most of the power. The sun would again have started to shine in the blue skies of unionist 'Ulster'.

But with Ritchie asserting a clearly nationalist agenda, the fantasy of voluntary coalition is unlikely to come about, and the blue sky is clouding over. The future, whether or not unionists like it, involves sharing power with Sinn Féin as equals, not just throwing a few titbits to the SDLP as a junior member of a voluntary coalition.

Tuesday 23 February 2010

UCUNF – the Tory wing

Now that the UUP has picked 17 candidates for Northern Ireland’s 18 Westminster seats, the spotlight will turn on the Conservatives who, according to the agreement between the two parties, will also propose candidates for the seats, before a joint committee settles on a final single UCUNF candidate per seat.

Because of the Cameron effect in England (now slightly waning), there is a belief that the Tories are a powerful force – at least as much a part of UCUNF as the UUP.

But the reality is that they aren’t – not in Northern Ireland, at any rate. The Tories are largely an English party, and have little support in Northern Ireland, despite the publicity that their dalliance with the UUP has given them. The constant references to the Tories in the British media have simply disguised the fact that in Northern Ireland they are largely non-existent.

The Tory party has barely 250 active members or supporters in Northern Ireland – almost all in the Greater Belfast area (Belfast, South and East Antrim, North Down, Lagan Valley and Strangford). In the 2007 Assembly elections the Tories polled only 3,457 votes, standing only in Belfast, East Antrim, Lagan Valley, North Down, South Antrim, South Down, Strangford and Upper Bann. The Tories Northern Ireland web site is not even updated any more.

On the other hand, in 2007 the UUP polled 103,145 votes and stood in all constituencies.

So the Tories are supposed to draw 18 proposed candidates from a tiny pool, and to promote them with almost no activists. This is nigh-on impossible. The Tories simply do not have people with either the interest, ability or political experience to mount a serious campaign in Northern Ireland.

Hence the attempts by the Tories to attract ‘celebrity’ candidates – here an ex-Alliance party turncoat, there a Top Gear producer, here a Catholic, there a female Catholic – and so on. But none of them will have a party machine – the feet on the street that will be necessary. Ultimately the footwork, the door-to-door campaigning, will be left to the UUP. And the UUP members will not do it if they feel that the Tory candidates have been imposed on them. If a locally popular UUP member is passed over for a Tory celebrity candidate the quality of the campaigning will suffer.

The Tories know this. The UUP knows this. The Tories need the UUP link-up in order to pretend to be a ‘UK-wide’ party, and the UUP needs the Tory link-up to save it from near-death. But ultimately in Northern Ireland the UUP is a real party while the Tories are a small group of middle-class people who fantasise about living in the English Home Counties.

So when the joint committee comes together to select the UCUNF candidates, although lip-service must be paid to the Tory link, the lion’s share of the candidacies must go to UUP candidates – they represent, after all, at least 95% of the combined UCUNF vote. A 50/50 split will lead to a UCUNF disaster – to the detriment of both parties. So the outcome will be that the Tories will get a run in several hopeless constituencies, and North Down. Where there is simply no Tory presence on the ground – i.e. everywhere west of the Bann – the UUP candidate will get the UCUNF candidacy – though the proposal of a total unknown in East Derry allows the UUP to ‘cede’ this candidacy to the Tories without offending anyone.

The Tories will put all of their publicity campaign into North Down – the nearest Northern Ireland has to a ‘Tory’ constituency, and will use this to distract attention from their absence elsewhere. But even in North Down the Tories got only 864 votes in 2007 (2.8% of the total), and their candidate, Ian Parsley, had a tiny personal vote in the 2005 local elections. The Tories are trying their best to talk up his chances, but if Sylvia Hermon stands as an independent she could sink the whole UCUNF project without trace.

Cohesion, Sharing and Integration

RTÉ are reporting that "First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness announced that they have agreed a long-awaited programme for cohesion, sharing and integration (CSI)".

CSI was a pre-condition that the Alliance Party were insisting on before nominating David Ford as Minister for Justice, but it has been a long-standing bone of contention between Sinn Féin and the DUP. If the RTÉ report is true it signifies a major breakthrough in relations between the two parties.

RTÉ also say that "the news came as Stormont sources also confirmed that plans for overseeing controversial parades will be completed within hours".

Taken together, these two developments are little short of dramatic, and imply that the Hillsborough Agreement was real, not just a sham like so many other past 'agreements'. Are the two main parties actually - and after such a long lead-in - finally going to work together?

The UUP 17

It should be 18, of course, but Sylvia Hermon is still refusing to endorse the UCUNF non-merger.

Of the 17 candidates proposed by the UUP side of UCUNF, only a proportion will go on to become the actual UCUNF candidates. So who will fall? The Tories will, of course, want at least a share of the 'winnable' seats.

Some of the 17 are newish and some are the same old-same old. Four are existing MLAs, so they, perhaps will be easier to 'sacrifice' to the Tories – apart from Tom Elliott who has serious ambitions.
  • North Antrim: Robin Swann – a failed council candidate in 2005
  • South Antrim: Adrian Watson – currently a councillor in Antrim
  • East Antrim: Rodney McCune – came third (with 14.5% of the vote) in the 2005 Westminster election in North Antrim.
  • North Belfast: Fred Cobain – currently an MLA; stood in North Belfast in 2005 and got 7.1% of the vote.
  • West Belfast: Bill Manwaring – a new face; a frequent commenter on the Slugger O'Toole website under the pseudonym 'True Blue'.
  • South Belfast: Paula Bradshaw – another newish face; girlfriend of the Tories hopeful (and ex-Alliance turncoat) Ian Parsley.
  • East Belfast: Trevor Ringland – who set up the 'One Small Step' campaign to try to fool Catholics into becoming small-u unionists. Where is it now?
  • Strangford: Mike Nesbitt – ex-TV presenter
  • South Down: John McCallister – currently an MLA
  • Lagan Valley: Daphne Trimble – wife of David.
  • Upper Bann: Harry Hamilton – a Freddy Mercury impersonator; presumably this will gain him invaluable free publicity. Otherwise politically a newcomer.
  • Newry and Armagh: Danny Kennedy – currently an MLA
  • Fermanagh and South Tyrone: Tom Elliott – currently an MLA
  • Mid Ulster: Sandra Overend – head of the UUP 'ladies' branch (aka the Ulster Unionist Women's Development Officer). Hence given an unwinnable seat to fight.
  • West Tyrone: Ross Hussey – an old face, but a no-hoper. In 2005 he got 6.9% of the vote in this constituency, and couldn't even get re-elected to the Assembly in 2007.
  • Foyle: David Harding – failed to get elected to Coleraine Borough Council in 2005, but was co-opted in 2009 to replace Liz Johnston. Do the UUP have no members in Foyle who could stand?
  • East Derry: Lesley McAuley – a complete unknown. Obviously the UUP don't intend to really challenge Gregory Campbell, or they intend to let the Tories do it.
So which ones will go on to actually carry the UCUNF banner? A lot depends on whether the Tories have managed to find any decent candidates – especially having accidentally lost three of them!

All in all, though, the UUP selection looks, at best, mediocre. The media has tried to talk up some of them as much as possible, but between the 17 there are none who will set the political scene ablaze. Hope for UCUNF must come, therefore, from the Tories. But they probably don't have anything up their sleeve either. They must be hoping that the mere novelty of their non-merger will give them a boost, because on the basis of these candidates they'll need it.

Ironically the only UUP 'candidate' who looks like a principled politician, and who enjoys genuine public support is the 18th - the one who will in all likelihood not be a UUP or UCUNF candidate - Sylvia Hermon. Of the whole bunch she is the one most likely to win a seat - but not for the UUP.


This blog recently referred to Gregory Campbell's support for cultural apartheid (despite the fact that other members of his party were arguing against such cultural separation!). This gave rise to a certain number of comments on the issue of culture, and specifically respect for other peoples cultures.

At issue in Northern Ireland is the implacable opposition of many unionists to any public expression of the Irish language. Even the provision of Irish language teaching brings many unionists out in hives.

Why do unionists oppose the public display of Irish, though? Is it because they think it is somehow 'un-British'? If so, why do the signs below not arouse any opposition from those Britons who live near them and drive past them?




Even London!

And outside the UK, but within the broader definition of 'British':

Isle of Man



And further afield in Europe, it seems that people in France are able to stomach the sight of signs in Breton:

In Catalan

In Alsation German

In Occitan:

And in Corsican

In Brussels the French and Dutch speakers appear to be able to tolerate the sight of each others language:

Even in tolerant and Protestant northern Netherlands the Friesian language is to be seen:

Spain, of course, has its Basque:

And Catalan languages on display:

Far to the chilly north, the unionists' co-religionists in Finland are scrupulously fair:

So what is the problem for unionists? Their position against the display of Irish in Ireland is both un-British and un-European. The excuses trotted out – the cost, 'unionist sensibilities', the 'politicisation of the language', etc – are entirely spurious. The truth is that unionists are simply anti-Irish bigots.

At the AGM of the Ulster Unionist Council on 9 March 2002 David Trimble unnecessarily and unwisely lost almost all of the passive support he had south of the border when he branded the Republic 'a pathetic sectarian, mono-ethnic, mono-cultural state'. But it seems that in their determination to suppress the native language of their own country, the unionists are themselves trying to create a truly pathetic, monocultural state – one which increasingly stands out as an exception in a diverse and tolerant Europe.

Sunday 21 February 2010

Elliott’s border fence

The UUP’s Tom Elliott wants the border to be sealed off as much as possible. He is complaining that there are plans to build bridges across the border between Caledon (Tyrone) and Glaslough (Monaghan):

Cross border bridges are unnecessary”, says Elliott, but oddly:

“… approach roads to and from these new bridges were not capable of carrying the amount of traffic that will escalate and lead to bottle necks and traffic hold ups on the narrow minor roads in the vicinity …”
Um, does that not actually mean that the bridges are necessary, and in fact, improved approach roads are also necessary?

Not to Mr Elliott, of course. The correct course of action for him is:

“… to put in place structures which would facilitate local users with light vehicles only and also accommodate people using the roads for leisure purposes. Restrictions should be put in place to prevent heavy lorries from using these routes”.
So, it seems that Elliott sees cross-border traffic as being only ‘light’ and ‘leisurely’ – footbridges, perhaps. The last thing he wants is actual commercial traffic, the kind that might lead to economic development and increasing affluence.

Of course, a more cynical person might question Elliott’s motives. A cynical person might wonder if Elliott is trying, Canute-like, to hold back the tide of cross-border business and economic development. Because, of course, if business ignores the border – as it should – then the political border starts to look even more ridiculous. If businesses north and south can trade as easily with each other as with other parts of their respective jurisdictions, then the irrationality of the unionists’ border becomes glaringly obvious. And when the irrationality of the border is clear to everyone, it won’t be long before the irrationality of the unionist philosophy is equally obvious to everyone. Mr Elliott would much prefer a nice border fence, or an Israeli-style wall, so that north means north and south means south, and ne’er the twain shall meet.

Elliott neatly sums up the illogically of his own position:

“I still consider the construction of these two bridges to be ill considered … and instead of building bridges could hamper good community relations and cross border co-operation in the area."
So building bridges doesn’t … um …, build bridges. Unionism, you’ve got to love it.

Allister wakes up

Jim Allister is having a bit of a crisis since he discovered what Sinn Féin’s real intentions are. It seems that only recently has he noticed that Sinn Féin (and all Irish nationalists) have the ultimate goal of Irish reunification and independence. Following Pat Doherty’s comments at a conference recently in London, Allister blustered:

“With Doherty going on to decree that The Good Friday Agreement is only an accommodation – not a settlement, and part of a process towards Irish unification, this is a direct challenge to the DUP … “

“It is clear from Doherty that for Sinn Fein the Belfast Agreement, like St Andrews and Hillsborough, is a mere staging post to be used and exploited to roll out Irish unity by stealth”
Well, apart from the ‘stealth’ bit he is quite right, of course. Sinn Féin and the SDLP (as well as non-party nationalists) do see the current arrangements as transient, and transitional. Of course – otherwise they would hardly be nationalists at all.

The strange thing is that Allister only seems to have woken up to this reality recently. What did he think from 1998 to 2007 – that all Irish nationalists had meekly bowed their heads and agreed to remain in the UK for the rest of all eternity? And, if he did think this, then why did he bother with politics during the past decade – if he thought that the constitutional position of Northern Ireland had been ‘settled’, then what further need was there for unionist parties? Why did he set up the TUV? If he thought that the constitutional position of Northern Ireland had been ‘settled’, and yet he was still agitating for the exclusion of nationalists from any positions of power, at a time when he apparently thought that they had ‘acquiesced’ to this ‘settlement’, then he was truly a nastier and more bigoted person than many thought. He thought nationalists had surrendered their constitutional ambitions, but he wanted them excluded from power nonetheless!

Now that he appears to have realised that behind all the talk about being nationalists, nationalists really are nationalists, poor Allister is going to come up with a whole new political strategy – instead of just trying to exclude nationalists because of their previous errors, he is going to have to think of a way of countering their current and future plans!

No wonder nationalists have so often seen Allister and his TUV as unwitting allies – because he was fighting a completely different (and totally off-target) battle, while nationalists were fighting for national unity and self-determination.

Allister was just trying to kick nationalists while they were down, but in his rage he failed to notice that they weren’t actually down, they were up and working away on achieving their political goals.

So Allister’s inadvertent assistance was not because he was completely stupid – it was because he was stupid and blind. But now that he has seen through Sinn Féin’s ‘stealth’ campaign, presumably he will refocus his strategy.

Thursday 18 February 2010

McDonald breaks some eggs

This blog is no supporter of the UDA, its members, methods, history or very existence. But in terms of ultra-unionism its credentials are usually respected by other unionists. No-one suspects it of softness or selling out, and while Lundies have been sought high and low they have rarely been found in the UDA.

Which makes it all the more embarrassing for the DUP that the leader of the UDA, Jackie McDonald, has just argued strongly against the position that the DUP has adopted on the issue of Orange marches:

"People used to walk down roads where Protestants lived. Now they want to walk down the same road where nationalists live. It might be tradition and it might be culture, but why would you?"
Why indeed? But McDonald does not leave it at the level of a rhetorical question – he goes on to give the answer that all nationalists know, but most unionists deny:
"What I’ve seen at Garvaghy Road before, or the Ormeau Road – once they got down the road, it was triumphalism straight out. That’s not the reason to walk down the road. That wasn’t the reason they walked down the road 30 years ago, or 50 years ago or 100 years ago. But they’ve turned it round. They’re not walking down the same road for the same reason. It’s to get one up on the other community, or being there because the other community says you can’t be."
It will be interesting to see how the DUP – wrapped in their orange bannerettes – react to that. The work of the Hillsborough Agreement working group on parades is not yet finished, and the leader of the unionists paramilitary wing has effectively come out and agreed with the nationalist position. Can Robinson now use a failure to agree an 'orange-friendly' outcome of the working group to delay the transfer of policing and justice again?

McDonald's statements, made during a period of high-pressure talks on the parading issue, cannot not have been innocent. He knew he was taking the legs out from under the DUP – the question is why he did it.

He half-answers the question himself, saying that he believes that the emphasis now should be on community building, even though that is a very long-term task. Could it be that the paramilitaries in the unionist community are actually more responsible and conciliatory than their politicians? If so, McDonald is giving a very clear message to the DUP – that they do not have the support of the men in berets and dark glasses.

Gregory Campbell and cultural apartheid

It seems as if Mr Campbell actually supports the physical separation of planter and Gael. So much for a shared future, or even a shared space – Mr Campbell sees some spaces as 'belonging' to one community, and other spaces to the other community.

In response to a proposal by Sinn Féin MLA Raymond McCartney that a new Meánscoil (Irish language secondary school) could be sited on the former site of Faughan Valley High School in Drumahoe, Campbell said:

"The second matter is that Mr McCartney also doesn't understand what the local response would be, if there were an approach to the Orange Order to see if a suitable site becoming available in [Derry's] Creggan estate, would they be interested in providing a boost to cultural education in that area?"
Two things stand out from Campbell's odd response. Firstly, that he assumes a negative response (from local Protestant/unionist residents) to a school, merely because of its language of instruction. Why does he assume such bigotry? No young person will be obliged to go to it – nobody is proposing that it should be compulsory for local children to attend it – so what could his problem be? The presence of Irish-speakers in 'Protestant' territory? Secondly, his bizarre 'equivalence' between a place of education (the Meánscoil) and the Orange Order. Is this a new front in the campaign by unionist extremists to equate everything culturally Irish (first the GAA, now schools) with his community's triumphalist trouble-makers?

The clear message is that Campbell thinks that Drumahoe is for (bigoted) Protestants only, and that no culturally 'Irish' institution should be allowed. This is pure cultural apartheid – of the sort that his party colleague Upper Bann MLA Stephen Moutray strongly criticised only one week ago:

"The idea that sectarian groups can unilaterally decide who will walk on a particular road is a case of cultural apartheid. Public space should be shared not divided between different groups."

The DUP seems to be speaking with two voices on this. Should space be shared – in which case a Meánscoil in Drumahoe is welcome – or should it be divided – in which case Orange feet should stay off the Garvaghy Road?

Wednesday 17 February 2010

Reducing impetus towards Catholic emigration

One of the principal components of demographic change in any society is migration. Unlike the other components, though, it rarely follows long-term trends. Numbers of births and deaths tend not to change very much from one year to the next, and a graph of them over a period tends to be a fairly smooth curve. Migration, though, is often only seen after it happens, and is difficult to predict.

Nonetheless, in a stable society certain drivers of migration can give rise to fairly continuous in- or out-flows of people. Unemployment often leads to outflows, and job opportunities often lead to inflows.

For many years Northern Ireland's unionist ruling elite (political, economic, and cultural) relied on emigration as a way of negating the higher Catholic birth rate. So for decades after the foundation of Northern Ireland as a state, despite higher Catholic birth rates than Protestant birth rates, the proportion of Catholics in the population did not change significantly. The 'excess' Catholics were simply 'encouraged' to emigrate in order to find work – and emigrate they did, in large numbers.

The lack of job opportunities for Catholics in Northern Ireland – due to blatant discrimination against them by Protestant employers – led to a considerably higher unemployment rate for Catholics, and a lower rate of labour force participation. Faced with such a bleak prospect, many young Catholics emigrated.

However, in recent years – partly due to equality laws, and partly due to the generally higher level of education amongst young Catholics than amongst young Protestants – the rate of Catholic unemployment has been dropping, and in many areas is not significantly higher than Protestant unemployment.

The 2008 Labour Force Survey Religion Report provides copious statistics on the position of Catholics and Protestants in the labour market, including the graph below:

Although Catholics are still more likely to be unemployed than Protestants, the difference has dropped dramatically since 1992.

Likewise, the prospects of employment for Catholics have almost caught up with those for Protestants:

There is still work to do, but the evolution in the labour market is clearly towards more equality, which in turn will reduce the impetus towards emigration for Catholics. And if Catholics do not emigrate, then the old unionist safety valve is no longer functioning – and with more Catholics amongst the children and young people of Northern Ireland, that can only mean one thing – in the long-term there will be a Catholic majority. As the 2008 Labour Force Survey Religion Report (section 2.4) puts it:

[Population aged 16-24] The proportion of Protestants was 49% in 1990 and 44% in 2008. The proportion of Roman Catholics was 44% in 1990 and 49% in 2008.
In a few days this blog will look again at the breakdown amongst school-children, but it seems that at all ages below around 30 there is a Catholic majority. Over the age of 60, on the other hand the LFS Religion Report reminds us that:

The proportion of Protestants was 66% in 1990 and 63% in 2008. The proportion of Roman Catholics was 30% in 1990 and 32% in 2008.

Time is running out for Protestant 'Ulster'.

Monday 15 February 2010

Dromore redux – Knockiveagh

The DUP’s councillor in Knockiveagh DEA in Banbridge, Wilfred McFadden, has died. A by-election is not out of the question.

McFadden represented a DEA that is even more evenly split than another Banbridge DEA – Dromore – that gave the DUP its first bloody nose in 2008. In 2005 the DUP won 33.2% of the vote in Knockiveagh, against the UUP’s 27.8%. (The total nationalist vote was 27.1%, which is too low to hope to benefit from a split unionist vote in an STV election).

But in 2005 there was no TUV.

In neighbouring Dromore in 2008 the TUV took around 40% of the combined DUP-TUV vote, and cost the DUP a seat that it ought to have picked up. Even half of this loss would cost the DUP McFadden’s seat.

In the European Parliament election in 2009, although Jim Allister lost his seat, he picked up around 40% of the combined DUP-TUV vote – a sign that Dromore was not just a flash in the pan.

Of course it is too early yet to know if there will actually be a by-election in Knockiveagh. The TUV have a councillor in Banbridge – Stephen Herron – but there is no certainty whether the party will wish to ‘exploit’ the death of a councillor. In Dromore the by-election was only caused by a resignation. The UUP may relish the prospect of giving their rivals a pointed defeat, but neither nationalist party will provoke a by-election – that is seen simply as bad form following the death in office of a councillor, even one from the DUP.

In any case, it is unlikely that any by-election could be held before the upcoming Westminster election, so its propaganda effect for the TUV may be reduced. In fact, if the TUV do badly in the Westminster elections and then are beaten in a by-election they could lose valuable momentum leading up to the two possible ‘big’ elections in 2011, for the Assembly and the new councils.

Just what has Allister against the Irish language?

Allister is not a blind man – he has, like most observers, noticed that the Hillsborough Agreement "commits to a work programme to action everything outstanding from St Andrews."

"Hence the commitments in St Andrews to the Irish language and the demands for expansion of the north/south bodies and a north/south parliamentary forum and civic forum, as well as a Single Equality Bill, will all now be progressed", he asserts.

And all of these things are presented as 'bad' things … just because.

But 'just because' what? What makes the promotion of the Irish language a 'bad thing' for Mr Allister? He doesn't explain his opposition to it – the reasons seem (to him) to be too obvious to need explaining.

To anybody else, though, Allister's visceral hatred of Irish can only seem to stem from a prejudice bordering on racism. Irish is just a language, a medium of communication. No-one is proposing to outlaw the speaking of English in Northern Ireland, and the incarceration of recidivist Anglophones in re-education camps. There will be no requirement to speak the Irish language to get jobs, education, or anything else. The costs of bilingual signage will be insignificant (and certainly a tiny fraction of the cost of other cultural activities). So what is Allister's problem?

Is it the word 'Irish' that bothers him? The fact that official recognition of that word implies in some way that there is an Irish dimension in Northern Ireland? But Mr Allister should pause for a moment – the very name of the state to which he owes so much allegiance is 'the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland'. So the recognition of that Irish dimension is already there! He lives in Ireland – his own state tells him so.

Could his attitude be related to Anglophone chauvinism? Could it be that he hates the mere thought of other languages that English even existing? Does he oppose Welsh and Scottish Gaelic so much? How about Ulster-Scots?

What does Allister think will happen if (when) the Irish language receives official recognition? Does he think that miraculously the scales will be lifted from unionist eyes and they will, upon the mere sight of a street name, realise that they are Irish after all? If so, he has very faith in his co-unionists. Can you not be a unionist if you speak Irish? What about the oft-trumpeted 'economic arguments'? Are they all just a smokescreen?

Unless Allister and his party can explain their opposition to the Irish language in rational terms, the watching world can come to only two conclusions. Either his hatred is entirely irrational – in which case he deserves to be treated like other racists and bigots, and marginalised. Or he does have a 'rational' reason, which is to ensure that, as far as possible, Northern Ireland remains a 'cold house' for anyone who does not aspire to re-make the region as a copy of England.

If this latter reason is true, then he is presumably hoping that those people who wish to see recognition of the Irish dimension will eventually become so demoralised that they will either turn into unionists (highly unlikely) or emigrate (also unlikely).

So, in effect, his opposition to the Irish language will have no impact on the electorate outcome in Northern Ireland, except to antagonise Irish language enthusiasts (some of whom may be from a unionist background), and ensure that they do not vote for his party, or any other unionist party. He is, essentially, just deliberately throwing away potential voters without achieving any counter-advantage at all. That is a very strange political attitude, and one that is largely counter-productive.

It is not for nothing that many nationalists see Allister and his TUV as unwitting allies. Not only do they split the unionist vote, but they help to portray unionism as irrationally racist and bigoted. What unionists see in Allister and his party is simply incomprehensible – he seems to appeal to those who would prefer Northern Ireland to remain in a state of constant political strife, or who would prefer a Northern Ireland in which one half of the population imposes its culture and its political beliefs on the other half. This runs contrary to modern norms of tolerance, diversity and freedom of expression – norms that are taken for granted in the Britain that Mr Allister so desperately wants to remain part of. That makes his position so difficult to understand – in order to remain British, he acts contrary to modern British values.

Politicians like Allister, and parties like the TUV, are difficult to counteract because their stated positions are so out of line with their actual behaviour. At the end of the day their opponents simply have to hope that the electorate will see this and will consign him to political oblivion. His recent political mini-successes do not support this hope, though. But perhaps more patience is needed.

Friday 12 February 2010

Not lost in translation

Poor Nigel Dodds. His recent appeal for 'unionist unity' is not just swimming against the tide (now that Reg Empey has finally caught up) but is a pathetic plea for help in retaining his shaky hold on North Belfast:
"The desire within the Protestant community for Unionist unity is palpable…. "
Translation: I am desperate for a pact.

"This opinion poll confirms what I have known for a very long time: pro-Union voters are fed up with the sorry spectacle of Unionists tearing lumps out of each other whilst nationalists sit on the sidelines laughing at and profiting from our division. People want to see the Unionist parties working together to see the enemies of the Union defeated at the ballot box."
Translation: I am desperate for a pact. Really desperate.

"I would urge the Ulster Unionists to come together with us to see that the swing in the forthcoming election is in favour of Unionism. By co-operating and working together we can ensure that two-thirds of Northern Ireland’s Westminster seats – 12 out of 18 – are represented by a Unionist in our national parliament at Westminster."
Translation: Please agree a pact or I'm toast.
"This poll also highlights the danger of Unionism splintering. In the European election we saw what the entry of a splitter did – pushed Sinn Fein to the top of the poll. "

Translation: Europe embarrassed my wife, but the next election is a major danger for me.

"The Unionist community want to see the electoral rise of Sinn Fein halted. By working together we can do it. I urge those who want to sow further division to put their bitterness to one side for the better good of Ulster’s place inside the United Kingdom. Country is more important than ego. We stand ready and willing to work with fellow-Unionists. By our combined efforts we can secure a real victory for Unionism."

Translation: Please agree a pact for the good of my seat. Pretty please?

Jim Allister's Heimat

Jim Allister and the TUV have staked out their Heimat. In the run up to the Westminster election ...

"Mr Allister has already declared his interest in North Antrim. It is thought the TUV will also stand in Lagan Valley, Strangford, East Belfast, East Antrim, South Antrim and in Mid Ulster … "

These areas correspond almost exactly to the areas of Northern Ireland that are majority Protestant, curiously enough. Perhaps the TUV agrees with this blog that there is a remarkable coincidence between religion and political persuasion in Northern Ireland.

Mid Ulster is a curious choice. Sinn Féin has a safe majority here and the TUV would just splinter the unionist minority into three instead of two. Perhaps they are just testing the waters in anticipation of the Assembly elections a year or more down the line.

More curious, though, are some of the constituencies that the TUV is not planning to run in:
  • East Derry
  • Upper Bann
  • North Belfast
  • South Belfast
Why is the TUV not planning to challenge the DUP in East Derry? Could it be that they recognise in Gregory Campbell a fellow-traveller?

Likewise in Upper Bann. Is David Simpson acceptable to Mr Allister, even though he too, apparently, is a member of a party that is 'in government with terrorists'?

And North Belfast? Is the TUV's shyness here more related to the fact that any split in the DUP's vote might gift the seat to Gerry Kelly of Sinn Féin?

And even the SDLP is apparently unacceptable to Allister, because he does not plan to compete in South Belfast – perhaps in the hope or expectation that the UUP and the DUP will eventually cobble together a 'pact' under another name to oust Alasdair McDonnell.

The TUV's Heimat is similar in shape to the real unionist 'Ulster' – i.e. a small and shrinking part of east Ulster where they still command a majority. By withdrawing electorally from the rest, the TUV is implicitly accepting the shrinking boundaries of the unionist project. There was a time when extreme unionism felt itself strong enough to stand all over Northern Ireland, but it seems that those days are over, and the extreme unionist aspiration is increasingly being pursued only in a part of Northern Ireland.

A sting in the tail

The full intricacies of the Hillsborough Agreement are still being digested by everyone – even those party to the agreement itself. One rather nice little sting in the tail has come to light today, in an article in the News Letter:

"Payments to former members of the RUC part-time reserve will only be made if policing and justice powers are devolved, the Government has confirmed.

A £20 million payment to compensate individuals who served in the part-time reserve was negotiated as a 'side deal' between the Government and the DUP late last year."

"Yesterday a spokesman for the Northern Ireland Office told the News Letter that the payment, which will come from the Treasury in London, would not be available if policing and justice powers are not devolved."
That news will cause serious problems for the DUP, which has spent a lot of time and effort positioning itself as the defenders of the RUC and its ex-Members. If the DUP now drag their feet on the transfer of policing and justice, the first concrete victims will be, not Sinn Féin or nationalists in general, but members of a group that the DUP considers close to its heart.

Even if, as this blog suggested yesterday, the DUP try to use the issue of Orange marches to further delay the transfer of policing and justice, the end result will be genuine anger amongst the ex-RUC community. Whether the DUP try to blame Sinn Féin for the looming failure to agree on parades or not, these members of the ex-RUC community will feel strongly let down (and financially penalised) by the DUP, who have it in their power to reach the agreement necessary to unlock the money.

Failure to come to an agreement on Orange marches will not change the reality on the ground – the Parades Commission will remain – but it will frustrate a sizeable part of the DUP's core support, those who stand to gain financially from the transfer of policing and justice.

It seems, yet again, as if the DUP has painted itself into a corner.

Council by-election in Belfast?

Sammy Wilson, DUP MP, MLA and Belfast City councillor, has announced that he will stand down from Belfast City Council with effect from 1 March 2010.

If Belfast City Council fails to agree a co-option, this could mean that there will be a council by-election in Pottinger electoral area.

Wilson topped the poll in 2005, and the DUP got 41.7% of the vote in Pottinger – but how much of the DUP's success was a personal vote for Wilson remains to be seen – and, of course, in 2005 there was no TUV.

Pottinger is a strongly unionist part of east Belfast, so the question in a by-election would be 'which unionist party will win?' A TUV candidate could eat into the DUP's vote sufficiently to allow a UUP win.

A by-election in Pottinger before the Westminster election would act as an interesting 'opinion poll' of unionist opinion, but the timetable for council by-elections is sufficiently elastic to allow the by-election to be held any time between 13 and 20 weeks after Wilson's resignation. Even if the procedure was accelerated as far as possible, it is almost impossible for the election to take place before the latest possible date for the Westminster election. The likelihood is that it will actually take place, if at all, quite a few weeks after the Westminster election. Which may, of course, be precisely why Wilson chose to resign his council seat on 1 March, rather than on any earlier date.

Thursday 11 February 2010

Crisis postponed

It seems increasingly clear that the Hillsborough Agreement was neither an agreement nor a solution to Northern Ireland's festering political problems.

The 'Agreement' merely set out an interlocking series of dates by which certain steps ought to be taken, but if any of them are not taken then the whole ramshackle construction comes to a halt. The two most important interlocking pieces are, of course, policing and justice, and parading – and the dates that the Agreement foresees for them are a bit scrambled, probably deliberately:

On policing and justice: "Following community consultation the First Minister and deputy First Minister will table jointly a resolution for a cross-community vote in the Assembly on 9 March".

But, before that: "Working group [on parading] completes work and reports on agreed outcomes to FM/dFM by 23 February".

So, the clear implication is that, if there are no 'agreed outcomes' on parading, the whole show stops. And Peter Robinson is, unhelpfully, starting to make warlike noises on parading:

In today's Belfast Telegraph Robinson writes:

"It has been a clear contradiction that, while the nationalist community demanded power be shared at Stormont, a section of nationalists refused to share something as basic as a road in an ever-increasing number of towns and villages across Northern Ireland.

Its potential as a public order issue makes the link between it and policing clear.

Furthermore, our present system, the Parades Commission, has been a failure. It issued incoherent, unexplained and inconsistent determinations which did nothing to resolve the issues.

The swift timeline towards publication of draft legislation on the parades issue means that everyone will be able to see very quickly how the new start to parading can come about.

Indeed the report of the working group will be published before the Assembly takes its decision on policing and justice."
While the working group on parading has been given fairly clear instructions by the Hillsborough Agreement, there is sufficient room for movement to allow it to fail to agree – and given the DUP's repeated positions in favour of unlimited rights to march, it is likely that there will be, in fact, no agreement.

The failure of the parading working group would lead to yet another freezing of the transfer of policing and justice, with the inevitable consequences.

It is likely that the DUP does not actually intend to see the transfer of policing and justice on 12 April – it has merely agreed with Hillsborough in order to push the problem further into the future, and to try to use the parading issue as a way of pretending that the inflexibility is from Sinn Féin, rather than from the DUP.

The failure to agree by 23 February will be accompanied by furious denials of responsibility by the DUP members of the working group, and furious recriminations. Whether this will convince anyone is irrelevant – it will simply be designed to muddy the waters and to try to spread the blame. Before Hillsborough the 'blame' was clearly being attributed to the DUP by every single external actor – London, Dublin, Washington – and many internal actors – the PSNI, churches, etc – but if the DUP can succeed in confusing some people then they will feel that it was a worthwhile exercise.

And, of course, on April 12, when policing and justice is not actually transferred, what will the media be obsessing about? Yes, indeed, that is the exact date when Gordon Brown will be expected to dissolve the Westminster parliament in order to hold the election on May 6. So Northern Ireland will not even be mentioned in the media, and the DUP will feel that they have won a reprieve until well after the election – and election in which they will not have to face the extremist voters fearful of being called Lundies. No transfer of policing and justice before the election, confusion about whose fault it really is – the DUP's game plan could barely be clearer.

And after the election, the crisis begins again. Yet again.

Wednesday 10 February 2010

Plan B – the Anglo Irish Agreement on acid

That is what Liam Clarke reckons Plan B would be, in the event of the Institutions being brought down.
"What we can expect, if Stormont self destructs, is more "jointery" short of joint authority. That would involve a formal Irish role in the representation of nationalist interests and routine cross border consultation on all major decisions. It will be, as one diplomat told me last year, like the "Anglo Irish Agreement on acid". The DUP, who trumpeted their good relations with Fianna Fail, would be in no position to complain after they had failed to provide stable government themselves."

As so often over the past generation, unionism finds itself in a ratchet. Every development seems to involve the increasing roll-back of unionism. Every 'cunning plan' ends with unionism worse off than before. Eventually they will realise – there will be no return to the unionist utopia of yesteryear. The future will be greener, just as the population will be greener. A far more healthy policy (mentally, at least) would be to accept the reality of their situation and adjust to it.

Sinn Féin's commitments on parading

Peter Robinson told the Northern Assembly yesterday 'he would walk away from the Hillsborough Castle agreement if Sinn Féin did not meet its commitments on parading'.

What exactly were Sinn Féin's commitments on parading?

The Hillsborough Agreement is quite clear:

To set up a co-chaired working group comprising six members, appointed by them, with experience of dealing with parading issues ….
Already done.

… which will bring forward agreed outcomes which they believe are capable of achieving cross community support for the new and improved framework. This work will begin immediately and will be completed within three weeks.
This imposes a commitment on both sides to seek 'cross community' solutions; i.e. there must be give and take on both sides.

The First Minister and deputy First Minister will promote and support the agreed outcomes of the working group.

This is a given, if the working group, which contains three members of the FM's and three members of the DFM's parties, reaches agreement.
Following the completion of the consultation process a Bill will be finalised.
Again, if there is agreement, this will not be contentious at all.
The First Minister and deputy First Minister will support all necessary steps in the Assembly to ensure that the Bill completes all stages before the end of 2010. In parallel the First Minister and deputy First Minister will take the necessary steps to enable the reclassification of parades as a transferred matter.
Again, not be contentious at all.
We will promote and support direct dialogue with, and the involvement of, representatives of the Loyal Orders, band parade organisers, local residents’ groups and other stakeholders, as this work is advanced. We will also encourage the participation of local elected representatives in the process of resolution. This work will start as soon as possible.
Since Sinn Féin has always supported this, and it was the Orange Order that refused face-to-face dialogue, it's hard to see this causing a problem for Sinn Féin.

So, cutting all the non-contentious issues, what Peter Robinson is saying is that the working group 'must bring forward agreed outcomes which they believe are capable of achieving cross community support for the new and improved framework', or he will resign. And he appears to be already trying to blame Sinn Féin for that!

Robinson is thus, after barely one day of the working group's work, accusing Sinn Féin of intending to block 'agreed outcomes'. On what basis is he doing this? Has he already pre-determined the outcomes (that he wants) and decided that they should be the final outcomes? In which case it is he, and not Sinn Féin, who is already signalling an intention not to compromise and thus to thwart the possibility of 'agreed outcomes'.

In truth, though, what Robinson is probably doing is trying to sound tough, in the light of the clear belief amongst many unionists that the Hillsborough Agreement was a climb-down by the DUP, and a clear win for Sinn Féin. By making it look, in advance, as if it is Sinn Féin that has to cede ground on Orange marches, he is trying to give the impression that the unwritten balance of the Agreement was more even – policing and justice for Sinn Féin, and Orange marches for the DUP.

The problem for Robinson, of course, is that the work of the working group has already been severely limited by the Agreement. In paragraphs 3 and of Section 2 the Agreement basically mandates the working group to agree with the Ashdown review, a proposal which is, if anything, nationalist-friendly – certainly in comparison with anything that the Orange Order wanted.

Sunday 7 February 2010

Vox pop on the Agreement

This blog’s initial reactions to the Hillsborough agreement were that it represented a climb-down by the DUP. While it is, of course, too early to know how things will actually turn out, it is interesting to note that the feeling of ordinary working class Protestants on the Shankill Road are not dissimilar to those of this blog. A vox pop carried out by the Irish Times provides the following comments:

On the Shankill Road, there’s a very different atmosphere. The shops are pulling their shutters down early, and most people seem more concerned with getting home at the end of a long week than discussing the new political deal. The majority of those who do stop feel aggrieved, sidelined and let down.

“We’re just fed up with the whole lot of them, that’s what everyone says on the Shankill,” calls one woman. At Mooney’s butchers, Alexander Brown and Darren Hinds are despondent about the future of the Protestant community. “Our politicians haven’t negotiated hard enough. Now everyone thinks the Prods are too soft,” says Brown. “I don’t think there will be any Orange parades now, and in another five or 10 years, we’ll be seeing a united Ireland.”

“The British government has just given in to Sinn Féin. If I had my chance I’d be out of here and away to Australia,” adds Hinds.

At her greengrocer’s shop across the road, Kathleen Dalton says that unionists have been let down by their representatives. “I won’t vote for the DUP again. I’ll give Jim Allister my vote next time. He stands up for his principles.”

But pensioner Malcolm McCalmont says that politicians have got their priorities wrong. “Too much has been made of parading. And they’ll argue about policing and law and order for another 100 years. They’re going on about the Garvaghy Road while hundreds of thousands are unemployed in Northern Ireland. It’s a load of rubbish.”

“Sack the lot of them,” agrees James Pollock, behind the counter of SOS Shoe Repairs. “They’re not worth a bag of onions. You feel you can’t trust them. Where’s the honesty and the integrity?”
Will the DUP will listen to these sorts of comments, and try to row back on their commitments? It seems that if they don't then they stand to lose a lot of votes - but perhaps they hope to compensate for them by taking (or keeping) the more moderate unionist support that would once have gone to the UUP. Is there really room any more for the DUP between the rejectionist TUV and the UUP-UCUNF, though? Unionism cannot provide enough votes for three major parties - one has to go, maybe even two. The DUP will have to box clever to avoid being one of the victims.

Minor party elects new leader

Once upon a time it might have mattered who the SDLP elected as their leader. Once upon a time the SDLP were the senior nationalist party in Northern Ireland. But not at the moment – the SDLP are a minor party, receiving barely one sixth of the vote, and considerably less than half of the nationalist vote. In the 2009 European Parliament election they beat … well, the TUV, Alliance and the Greens. If they slip any further they will be counted amongst that sad group of ‘also-rans’.

Their new leader, Margaret Ritchie, announced in her victor’s speech that ‘she would revive the SDLP’s fortunes and make it the largest party in the North’. If she managed to do that she would certainly be the greatest politician in the north’s recent history – but on her track record so far she has precisely no hope of doing it.

The SDLP are barely a shadow of their former selves, and they seem incapable of finding a way out of the doldrums. The hinted-at co-operation with Fianna Fáil could have provided a path back to relevance, but the election of Ritchie is likely to reverse that co-operation – she is known to not be greatly in favour of it.

Ritchie’s election leaves Alasdair McDonnell in a difficult position. He faces a Westminster election soon knowing that his South Belfast seat is only a loaner. If he had won the SDLP leadership he would have had a higher profile to build upon, but there is now something of a loser about him. His chances of retaining South Belfast must have just gone down a bit.

Whether Ritchie will now use her heightened status to take the South Down seat (or candidacy, at least) over from Eddie McGrady is uncertain. McGrady has said he intends to stand again, but he is, to be polite, over the normal age of retirement. The question is whether Ritchie thinks that the proper place for an SDLP leader is in Stormont or in Westminster. Logic suggests Stormont, but pride often outweighs logic. The answer to this question should become clear soon.

Friday 5 February 2010

Some initial thoughts on the Agreement

Following the five-heading structure of the agreement:

1. Policing and Justice

There is a date for transfer – 12 April – that is far sooner than the political lifetime promised by some DUP representatives.

There is no built-in exclusion of Sinn Féin from the Justice Ministry, so while the Alliance Party's David Ford may be appointed next Monday, after next year's Assembly election the post is open to any party according to the D'Hondt system, including Sinn Féin. And should this happen, any Executive consideration of a decision of the justice minister can only happen if the FM and DFM acting jointly require it. So assuming Sinn Féin hold at least one of those positions, a Sinn Féin Justice Minister would have full autonomy!

2. Parades

Basically there will be an intense three-week working group that will tweak the Ashdown interim proposals, but the key wording of the Agreement is not Orange-friendly. It requires respect for the rights of residents, and promises freedom from sectarian harassment. As with the Ashdown proposals, the eventual outcome will fall very far short of what Orange Order fanatics have wanted in the past.

3. Improving Executive Function and Delivery

Essentially a sop to the minor parties, who will co-chair a 'working group' that will simply make recommendations.

4. Outstanding Executive Business

A logical catch-up exercise to deblock a lot of the non-contentious items stuck in the Executive. Hardly contentious!

5. Outstanding Issues from St Andrews

"The First Minister and deputy First Minister will provide a report to the Executive by the end of February detailing the level of progress made on each outstanding matter".

Pretty obvious code for progress on the Irish language. Other items "which have not been faithfully implemented or actioned" include the Committee of the Centre, the Efficiency
Review Panel, the North-South Parliamentary Forum, and the independent North/South consultative forum, as well as other minor things. This section is certainly not DUP-friendly

Conclusion: the DUP have buckled, at least in terms of their 'smash Sinn Féin' rhetoric of the past. This Agreement does not, in any way, discomfit Sinn Féin or nationalism, but it requires considerable pull-back by the DUP.

If the terms of the Agreement are adhered to, the future should see progress on the Irish language, more north-southery, and may even see a Sinn Féin Justice Minister in 16 months. At the same time there is no provision for the Orange Order to march where they wish, or any mention whatsoever of 'voluntary coalition'.

Agreement at Hillsborough Castle

The text of the 'Agreement at Hillsborough Castle' is available here:

We have a basis …

Peter Robinson, speaking last night:
"We have a basis on which we can go forward and recommend it to our party, to the other parties in Northern Ireland and to the community. [An] essential element in the Democratic Unionist Party's manifesto is the requirement for community confidence. We believe that this can be the basis of gaining that confidence and we will seek the support of the other parties and of the community".
Now three things stand out from that short but significant statement:

Firstly, the very fact that Robinson claims to have something (not yet a 'deal') that he says has the unanimous support of his party.

Secondly, Robinson carefully does not claim that the DUP's famous 'community confidence' hurdle has been crossed. On the contrary, he says that whatever was agreed (and we will have to wait until later this morning to see what that was) is merely "the basis of gaining that confidence". So it seems that he is stalling yet again.

Thirdly, the fact that, as he spoke he was flanked by only two of his colleagues – Arlene Foster and Sammy Wilson – neither of whom had been mentioned as being amongst Monday's 14 dissenters. Unlike on previous occasions, Robinson did not have the unsmiling faces of Gregory Campbell or Nigel Dodds behind him. Perhaps the lateness of the hour explains it, but perhaps it reflects an unwillingness amongst some DUP MLAs to be too closely associated with the announcement.

Not long ago Arlene Foster – speaking as acting First Minister, defiantly stated that the DUP would not be forced into a deal. Others spoke of no transfer of policing and justice for a political lifetime. But that was obviously bluster, and the DUP have caved in to some kind of deal. Whether their surrender has been complete, and there will actually be a date for the transfer in the 'document' to be published later today we will have to wait and see. It would not be surprising if the DUP adopts the same approach as it did with the St Andrews agreement, where no party actually signed anything, and thus all could deny having made commitments. It is hard to see how the DUP could delay the transfer any longer, but faced with the dangers posed by the TUV in the three elections in the next 16 months, they may still try to.

This blog recently drew a feeble comparison between Jim Allister and Winston Churchill – but as Peter Robinson (Chamberlain in the comparison) comes back from Munich (Hillsborough) with 'peace in our time' (the 'document'), the comparison starts to look more convincing. Just as in 1938, many people today will greet the announcement of a deal as a great breakthrough that saves Northern Ireland from the threat of (political) conflict. But what happened barely more than a year later, in 1939?