Friday 30 April 2010

When is a Tory not a Tory?

When his name is Rodney Connor, apparently.

On Monday night, when FST 'colourful' independent candidate John Stevenson asked Rodney Connor "Are you a Tory or not, yes or no?", Connor replied "I'm not a Tory and I'm not a member of any party. I will always make my decision on what I believe to be the best for the people of the constituency."

But according to Connor himself, he 'is prepared to accept the Conservative whip'.

So what's it to be – Tory or not? If you take the Tory whip, are you not to all extents and purposes a Tory? If you permit yourself to pick and chose whether or not to support the Tories, then you are clearly not a Tory.

'Colourful' Mr Stevenson followed up by stating the word 'Tory' means 'bandit' in Irish and received cheers and a rapturous applause from the audience. He finished by offering this message to David Cameron, "Go back to England and keep your dirty nose out of Northern Ireland politics!"

This blog is starting to like Mr Stevenson more and more!

Thursday 29 April 2010

Is a 12.5% Corporation Tax rate possible in Northern Ireland?

Northern Ireland's political parties are almost unanimous in supporting a reduction in the Corporation Tax rate to 12.5% – for Northern Ireland only. The south has a 12.5% rate, of course, and the belief appears to be that this low tax rate above all other factors is what has helped the south to overtake the north economically. Ironically, even unionists support north-south harmonisation in this regard.

Would it be possible for a new British government to change the corporation tax rate in Northern Ireland only?

There are two factors that would come into play: political considerations, and legal considerations.

Politically, it would be extremely difficult for any British administration to make a specific case for Northern Ireland – and not for disadvantaged areas of Britain. While Northern Irish producers might claim that they are competing against southern producers, this is really only true on the island of Ireland, and even then they are only a small part of the competition. Why, for example, should Scottish producers trying to sell into Ireland be disadvantaged vis-à-vis Northern Irish producers? Why, indeed, should Northern Irish producers be given a clear tax advantage when they sell into Scotland? Ditto for Wales, and the north of England.

Any advantage given to Northern Ireland only would be extremely unpopular in other parts of the UK, and would be seen as unfair and discriminatory. Any British government that introduced such a measure would be handing a political weapon to the SNP, Plaid Cymru – and if it was done by a Tory government – to Labour. And there is no reason why Northern Ireland uniquely should be given such a leg-up – it is a backward region, of course, but not dramatically more backward than many others.

Legally, the situation is fuzzy. Corporation taxation is a national responsibility, but the EU is trying to move towards a consensus on the harmonisation of tax rates. In particular the EU is trying to stop 'harmful tax competition', which includes "tax measures (legislative, regulatory and administrative) which have, or may have, a significant impact on the location of business in the Union". The criteria for identifying potentially harmful measures include "an effective level of taxation which is significantly lower than the general level of taxation in the country concerned".

Although no binding rules are in place, all the EU Member States – including the UK – signed a Code of Conduct for Business Taxation in 1997 in which they undertook;
"… not to introduce new tax measures which are harmful within the meaning of this code. Member States will therefore respect the principles underlying the code when determining future policy … "

Given the clear Tory distain for 'Europe', it is not excluded that they would ignore mere 'codes of practice', but a corporation tax rate that applied only to Northern Ireland would be clearly designed to damage the economy of another EU Member State – the south. As a Member State the south has clout – and plenty of latent support in the EU (such is the advantage of having been a good member for 37 years). The Commission would support the south, the European Court would take a very dim view, and at political level (European Parliament, Council) the UK would be in the dog-house for blatantly breaking a code of conduct it signed up to.

And why would the UK want that amount of hassle? To suit whom? A small number of Northern Irish business owners who see an opportunity to make more profit?

There is little doubt why the Tories, in their election manifesto, promised only to "produce a government paper examining the mechanism for changing the corporation tax rate in Northern Ireland" – because that is as far as they intend to actually go, and any commitment beyond that would be a lie.

There will be no 12.5% corporation tax rate – certainly not presented as simply as that. There might be a fudge that allows other regions to benefit, and that, at the end of the day, does not provide much stimulus in Northern Ireland.

The only future for Northern Ireland is either continued welfare dependency (almost 70%!) or severe cuts in public spending that restore the profitability of the private sector by bringing wage costs down sharply. Northern Irish firms will only compete successfully when their costs are lower than their competitors – in the south, in Britain, in Europe – and as long as the public sector provides a better-paid option to private sector hard work this will not happen. The Tories know it, and in their hearts, so do all the Northern Irish parties.

There's a cold wind coming

Despite the unanimity of the Northern Irish parties – and Gerry Adams call for unity to counter them – there will be significant cuts in public spending following the Westminster election.

Economic commentator Will Hutton, quoted by the BBC, 'has warned that the NI public sector will face cuts irrespective of who wins the election':
' … in the past 15 years taxes raised in a "bubble economy" in the south east of England had been redistributed to other parts of the UK, including Northern Ireland, through a growth in public sector jobs.'

The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) warned that the UK faces the deepest spending cuts since the late 1970s if the three main parties are to meet their budget commitments. The years between 2011 and 2015 must see the largest cuts since 1976-80, according to the IFS.

What will it mean for Northern Ireland, and particularly for the 'constitutional question'?

Firstly, of course, it will remove the safety net that Northern Ireland has enjoyed since the start of the global economic crisis. Many commentators had remarked that the size of the public sector in Northern Ireland would cushion it from the worst of the effects – and so it appeared to be. Unemployment in Northern Ireland did not rise as fast or as far as in the south. But now, when the rest of the world appears to be coming out of crisis, Northern Ireland may be heading into one of its own.

Although unemployment rates in Northern Ireland are relatively low, recently they have started to increase rapidly. There are only two Northern Irish constituencies in the 'top 25' in the UK in terms of their unemployment rate (West Belfast and Foyle); but in the 'top 25' of unemployment increases during the period February 2009 to February 2010 there are fully eleven Northern Irish constituencies – with East Belfast at number 2, with an increase in unemployment of 51.6% in one year. So unemployment is already racing upwards, and that will increase. At the same time, benefits will probably be frozen or restricted.

This will not provide much support for the unionist mantra that 'Northern Ireland is better off in the UK'. If the cuts come fast and deep (i.e. if the Tories win in Britain) then the effects will be clear in time for next year's Assembly (and local?) elections. Any hopes the UUP may have had of increasing their Assembly presence would probably be dashed, and their hopes of attracting Catholic votes would remain still-born.

In a situation of increasing unemployment and with London appearing to cut back its subsidy to Northern Ireland, the perception of marginality will increase – unionists will increasingly feel let down, and nationalists vindicated. If the south is coming out of recession at the same time (and it is expected to do so in 2011) then nationalists in the north will be reinforced in their belief that the north would be better off in a re-united Ireland – and unionists would have few counter-arguments.

The reaction to the inevitable cuts in Northern Ireland will combine with a period of increasing interest in Northern Ireland's creation (the decade of centenaries), and a narrowing of the gap between unionism and nationalism in the polls – and between Protestants and Catholics in the census.

All of these factors will keep alive – and probably reinvigorate – the constitutional question, just at the time when unionism is hoping to bury it.

Wednesday 28 April 2010

A week too long

The Westminster election campaign is a week too long. Polling is not until next Thursday, but already there is nothing left to say.

We know who is standing (and who is not). We know what they stand for. We have read as many of their campaign promises as we can stomach. We know they aren't telling the truth, and know that they'll never be caught out. We know who we are going to vote for.

So what are we waiting for?

Another week of this phoney war is not going to change anyone's mind. Politicians and their supporters will simply spend another week repeating the same mantras, harassing innocent householders on their doorsteps and polluting the environment with their posters. For nothing. Because an election tomorrow will give the same result as one next week.

Even the 'big news' in Britain – the LibDem surge – is not likely to change much, so it is unlikely that Britain needs the extra week either. All that is likely is voter-fatigue brought on by yet another stage-managed panel discussion or yet another slick party election broadcast. At best, and this is unlikely, the extra week will provide enough time for someone – anyone – to slip up and say or do something newsworthy. But politics is so controlled and marketed nowadays that a true 'game-changer' is not likely to happen. In its absence the campaign is becoming boring.

As far as 'persuading' the voters is concerned, the extra week is pointless – Northern Ireland's voters knew who they would vote for several months ago – many knew years ago.

The most charitable explanation for the over-long election timetable is that the Electoral Office needs the time to print and distribute the ballot papers. If so, patience is required, but another week of this will test the patience of even the most enthusiastic.

Tuesday 27 April 2010

The punters' opinion (part 3)

In addition to Paddy Power and William Hill, also Ladbrokes offer odds on the outcome of the Westminster election in each constituency.

The main difference compared with the others is that Ladbrokes see UCUNF taking South Antrim (8/11, while the DUP is evens).

Ladbrokes have taken the trouble to identify the independent candidates (unlike William Hill, who call them all ('TUV').

So all three main bookies (or rather their customers) share a consensus on most of the constituencies:
  • The DUP will retain North Antrim, East Antrim, East Belfast, North Belfast, Lagan Valley, East Derry, Strangford and Upper Bann.
  • Sinn Féin will retain West Belfast, Mid Ulster, Newry and Armagh and West Tyrone.
  • The SDLP will retain all three of their current seats.
  • Sylvia Hermon will easily retain North Down.
  • South Antrim and Fermanagh and South Tyrone will be close – there are no clear favourites yet.
The whole election in Northern Ireland, at this point, and according to the combined wisdom of the betting class, is thus really about two seats. In South Antrim UCUNF faces its Waterloo – failure to win will consign them to the dustbin of history. A narrow victory will see them clinging on, alive but not thriving. In FST the UCUNF project lost a wheel, but if Connor wins the seat for the Protestants (sorry, that should be "for the unionists") then UCUNF will claim it as a victory. But at present Connor is not a shoe-in.

Unless the odds change, May 7 could see all 18 of Northern Ireland's constituencies in exactly the same hands as they are in today. At the most, probably only two constituencies will change hands.

The punters' opinion (part 2)

Paddy Power is not the only bookie offering odds on the Westminster election results. William Hill also does so, and shows some different odds to Paddy Power.

William Hill, for example:
  • Offers 25/1 on the TUV winning North Belfast – which is a bit odd since the TUV aren't even standing there,
  • Puts Gerry Adams at only 1/500 in West Belfast (as against Paddy Power's 1/750),
  • Has Sinn Féin and Rodney Connor level-pegging in FST (at 5/6 apiece) – and offers 50/1 against the TUV taking the seat – again, though, the TUV aren't actually standing!
  • This is getting repetitive – TUV at 100/1 in Foyle, but, you guessed it … they aren't actually standing there! (Maybe William Hill sees every independent candidate as a TUV candidate?
  • Newry and Armagh – yes, that's right, Willie Frazer is probably the mystery 'TUV' candidate on 50/1 (still better odds than the Alliance candidate, though)
  • Ciaran McClean is probably the 'TUV' candidate in West Tyrone (on 100/1), but who is the mystery 16/1 'TUV' outsider in Upper Bann (whose odds are better than the SDLP's, even though he or she doesn't actually exist. How embarrassing for Dolores Kelly.)
Apart from the single serious difference – FST – William Hill has the odds much the same, certainly in terms of the favourites, as Paddy Power. William Hill would have the DUP retaining 8 out of its 9 seats, the SDLP all three of theirs, SF 4 out of 5, and Hermon keeping North Down. Only in South Antrim and FST does William Hill see uuncertainty, and in both of these it has the two main contenders on the same odds.

Monday 26 April 2010

Bypassing the heart of the union

The UUP like to pretend that their link-up with the English Tories will put Northern Ireland at the 'heart of the UK'. There are clearly neither geographers not anatomists in UCUNF.

But the UCUNF manifesto (basically the Tory manifesto with a few additional words) makes clear that not only will Northern Ireland not be 'at the heart of the union', it will be practically a heart bypass:
"Conservatives and Unionists will therefore look at turning Northern Ireland into an economic enterprise zone. A Conservative and Unionist Government will produce a government paper examining the mechanism for changing the corporation tax rate in Northern Ireland, in order to attract significant new investment."

Regional policy in any country can, of course, lead to variations in government support, but to actually designate Northern Ireland as an economic enterprise zone would definitely mark it out as different, a place apart, and quite dis-united from Britain. The fact that the overt intention is to align Northern Ireland with "a country that has a significantly lower rate of corporation tax" (i.e. the south) simply emphasises the gap between Northern Ireland and Britain, and its proximity in geographic as well as economy terms, with the rest of Ireland!

The Tories are preparing Northern Ireland for full participation in the all-Ireland economy by proposing an alignment of its tax rates with those of the south, rather than 'uniting' them with those of Britain.

There is, of course, no more logical reason why Northern Ireland should mimic the south's corporation tax rate any more than Wales, Scotland or Cornwall should. Mere geographic proximity is irrelevant when both jurisdictions are trading in global markets. If UK corporation tax rates are too high, then they're too high for all – if they are 'correct', then Northern Ireland's problems lie elsewhere, either in its cost structures or in its peripherality. And other regions share those problems.

The reality is that this is just an election gimmick – nothing concrete will come of it – because if Northern Ireland was to become an economic enterprise zone with a specially low corporation tax rate then the Tories would have just ripped up their Act of Union with Scotland, and probably handed Plaid Cymru a massive boost as well.

So while the Tories will "look at turning Northern Ireland into an economic enterprise zone" they will not do it. There are only two real options for getting Northern Ireland out of its economic doldrums – old-fashioned hard work and enterprise or reunification with the south. This blog supports both.


That's 'Ulster Soviet Socialist Republic', of course – one of the last remaining examples of state control of the economy in the world. And it's getting worse rather than better:

The public sector in Northern Ireland will account for 69.2 % of total GDP in 2010-11. Even in communist Cuba the state accounts for only around 60 %. Northern Ireland is probably second only to North Korea worldwide in terms of state control of the economy.

David Cameron is right – the state share of the economy is too big – but he is too timid. The state share in Northern Ireland is grossly too big, and shows Northern Ireland to be an economic basket case of colossal proportions. Frazer Nelson, writing in The Spectator, has created a graph that shows how far off the scale of 'normality' the Northern Irish economy is:

The question is not whether there are cuts coming, because there are – but rather what people in Northern Ireland are going to do to get out of this hole of dependency. It is a disgraceful situation for any people to be in, and anyone who argues that this is 'normal' or 'justified' or even 'acceptable' is irresponsible.

2011 – a political census

Next year will be a big year politically – there will be elections for the Assembly, and probably also for the district councils (though it is still uncertain which councils). But 2011 will be significant also demographically, because it will see the next decennial census, on Sunday 27 March 2011.

The census, although nominally apolitical, is a highly political exercise in Northern Ireland – and next year will take the level of politicisation to higher levels.

The 2001 census added to the usual question on religion one on 'religion or religion brought up in', in an attempt to label those who claimed no current religion. This nuance seemed to add considerably to the picture of Northern Ireland's population (though NISRA used some slightly questionable methodologies to 'allocate' those who resisted allocation). The question on 'religion or religion brought up in' will be retained in 2011, allowing demographers to draw some very broad conclusions – and of particular interest will be the 'evolution' of the very young, who had a high rate of non-declaration on the religious question, despite a lower rate amongst their parents (who actually filled in the forms on their behalf!). It will be interesting to see if the 7.4 % of 0-4 year-olds in 2001 with no 'religion or religion brought up in' have grown up to be an equally irreligious group of 10-14 year-olds.

The Proposals for the 2011 Census of Population in Northern Ireland, published in March by NISRA, add several novelties that were not included in 2001, including questions on:
  • Citizenship
  • National identity
  • Main language
  • Ability in English
  • Ability in Irish and Ulster Scots
While these questions may have rational justifications in terms of service provision by government departments, there is no question that in the Northern Irish context they are political questions.

The question on 'national identity' is separate to that on citizenship, and is thus a wholly political question, designed to show what proportion of the population considers themselves 'Irish' or 'British'. It is not clear yet what permutations of answers will be allowed, or if it will be a free-text field. The possibilities include, of course, Irish, British, Northern Irish, 'Ulster', or any combination of these (not counting those people who identify with countries further afield). The results of this question will, of course, be argued over for years – with unionists claiming that 'only X % of the population identify themselves as Irish, and therefore Irish unity is a non-starter', etc. Others may point out the the 'Irish' identity outnumbers the 'British' identity west of the Bann and that re-partition should be considered. Still others will look at the evolution of identities across age groups – if more of the young see themselves as 'Irish' than 'British' then the future if Northern Ireland comes into question.

The questions on ability in Irish and/or Ulster Scots will, no doubt, be used to provide unionists with a weapon to use against an Irish Language Act, and probably also to argue against funding for Irish in general. The 'main language' of 99.8 % of the indigenous population will turn out to be English, and this will, of course, be used against any 'concessions' to the Irish language.

Censuses do not give up their results overnight like elections, of course, and thus while 2011 may provide political shocks at Assembly and Council levels, the census will dribble out its results over a longer period, and influence political discourse for a number of years. It will provide enormous amounts of data for politicians and demographers to pore over, and to argue over. But at the end of the day the most important factor in political decision-making remains election results. No matter what the census tells us about national identity, if a majority of voters vote for nationalist parties, this trumps the census. For that reason, while the political census next year is interesting, the elections will be vital.

Sunday 25 April 2010

Where does Connor stand?

David Cameron’s announcement that public spending in Northern Ireland is going to be squeezed must be causing some concern for his best buddy in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Rodney Connor, the man who won’t join his party but will submit to his authority!

“Connor said that he is prepared to accept the Conservative whip, but, on matters concerning Northern Ireland, he will vote on basis of what he believes is in the best interests of his constituents.”
Given that the pain will come long before the reward, in FST as elsewhere, where does Connor stand? Will he “accept the Conservative whip” when the knife starts to cut, or will he “vote on basis of what he believes is in the best interests of his constituents” (in the short-term, at any rate)?

How does Cameron’s announcement of pain-to-come play out on the doorsteps? What does Connor say when the point is raised? Or is it simply enough that he has wrapped a British flag around himself?

It might be interesting for the voters of FST to know where Connor stands on this issue – which seems to signal a glaring discrepancy between the two ends of one of his sentences.

Or is it all really just meaningless gibberish designed to dress up his sectarian campaign in fancy clothes?

From May 7 it’s the Assembly that counts

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
That walking shadow today is the Westminster election. Last year it was the European election. Tales full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. And why do they signify nothing? Because the representatives from Northern Ireland have no power – none whatsoever in Europe, and none in Westminster unless a perfect combination of circumstances gives them, and only them, the balance of power – for which the probability is close to zero.

Governmental power in Northern Ireland is split between three bodies – the European institutions, Westminster and Stormont. In Europe Northern Ireland practically does not exist – it has no Commissioner, no members of the Court of Justice or the Court of Auditors, and a paltry three MEPs who are members of irrelevant groupings. Yet, as many people complain, most of our laws come from Europe! Northern Ireland’s power to influence them is zero – Northern Ireland is a vassal state.

Westminster, still the source of some laws – but not many – is almost as devoid of Northern Irish influence. Forget the hubris – even if the Tories win on May 6, Northern Ireland will remain irrelevant and Reg Empey will never have a significant cabinet position.

The only body here Northern Irish people exert some control overt their own lives is Stormont. Stormont is the real prize, and the more representation that the parties have there the more real power they can exert. The Westminster elections are just a taster – winning or losing a seat makes no difference whatsoever, except as an indicator of strength in a constituency. The real contest is for vote-share, not seats in Westminster. Sinn Féin, who do not – and will not, despite the fantasies of some unionists – take up their seats in Westminster, still contest the elections, simply to put down a marker for next year. The TUV is presumably doing the same, because their chances of winning any seats on May 6 are remote – but it may invigorate them for 2011. All the parties are competing this year with an eye on next year, when the real division of power will be decided for another four years.

After the sound and fury dies down on May 7 the petty pace of Northern Irish politics will creep onwards, from day to day, until the Assembly elections next year. Then real politics and real competition will break out. And after that? Well, to-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow will keep coming.

The punters’ opinion (part 1)

With less than two weeks to go until the Westminster election, it is time to start looking at what the bookies can tell us. Because, regardless of what they might want the outcome to be, it would be a rare punter who would place a bet for political reasons rather than the hope to win a few pounds.

Paddy Power, as usual, is offering odds on the result in each of the 18 constituencies.

His punters see the outcome as largely a victory for the status quo.

The DUP – according to the punters – will retain 8 of its 9 seats. In the ninth, South Antrim, the DUP are level-pegged with UCUNF (both are on 5/6 against). The SDLP are favourites to retain all three of their seats (including South Belfast), and Sinn Féin are favourites to retain 4 of their 5. The fifth, of course, is Fermanagh and South Tyrone where Rodney Connor, the unionist unity candidate, is marginally favourite to win. Sylvia Hermon is the bookies favourite in North Down.

So in 16 seats the punters expect no change. Only South Antrim and FST are exceptions. The odds may change slightly in the run-up to the election, and this blog will keep an eye on them to see if the ordinary (wo)man in the street changes his or her mind.

Some anomalies are visible in the odds – for example, despite the boosting by her supporters, the punter sees Naomi Long (Alliance) as having no real chance in East Belfast – at 40/1 against she has longer odds even than the TUV candidate. In North Belfast, embarrassingly, Alliance has longer odds even than the joke candidate Martin McAuley, and in FST it has longer odds than the independent John Stevenson. Gerry Adams in West Belfast has the shortest odds the Western World has probably ever seen in a contested election – 1/750.

Saturday 24 April 2010

Et tu, Fionnuala?

In Fionnuala O’Connor’s Constituency Profile on South Belfast in today’s Irish Times:

“The last census showed South Belfast still had a unionist majority …”

Focal sa chluais, a Fhionnuala – the census does not measure political persuasion. In fact there are no ‘political’ questions whatsoever in it. What it measured was religious persuasion. What you wished to say, no doubt, was that the census showed that South Belfast had a Protestant majority (around 52%). In polite company it is normal to pretend that there is no direct correlation between religion and politics – but privately many people know there is.

And clearly so does Fionnuala O’Connor and the Irish Times.

Rebalancing the economy

It seems that this blog is not alone in worrying about the size of the public sector in Northern Ireland. By coincidence, yesterday David Cameron, in an interview with the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman, said that:
“... in some parts of the UK the "state accounts for a bigger share of the economy than it did in the communist countries of the old eastern bloc - it is clearly unsustainable".

Asked which part of the UK he was referring to, Cameron said: "I think the first one I would pick out is Northern Ireland. In Northern Ireland it is quite clear, almost every party, I think, accepts that the size of the state has got too big, we need a bigger private sector".

He added that "almost any party leader sitting in this chair" would say that over the next parliament there needed to be a "faster growing private sector" and a "rebalancing of the economy".

This will come as an embarrassment to UCUNF, and particularly the UUP wing of that flightless bird. How will UCUNF candidates explain on the doorsteps that ‘their leader’ intends to ‘rebalance the economy’ – especially since the only way to do that is to shrink the public sector and reduce the incentive for people to seek their jobs and their future there?

Those who questioned whether UCUNF could really satisfy the broad base of the UUP, which has traditionally included many working class voters, now have their answer – it cannot. The low-paid public sector workers who make up a significant share of the northern electorate will be less than enthused by Cameron’s comments, and may chose to take their votes elsewhere.

In one sense this is a pity, because a smaller public sector and a larger private sector is actually in the interests of all, working class as well as middle class. But for those who have no intention of providing for themselves, and who really think that ‘society’ (i.e. other people) ‘owe’ them something, the Tory position is less than attractive. No doubt, despite the fundamental error of the dependency-junkies, there will be others more than willing to promise them something for nothing in return for their votes. The DUP in particular will certainly jump in to promise all sorts of state-funded goodies that they know they have no way of delivering - and even if they could, it would not be Northern Irish taxpayers who would foot the bill:

[Map taken from Conservative Manifesto 2010, p. 22]

A long time ago this blog asked whether unionism was a cargo cult. The current obsession with trying to extract unearned 'cargo' out of nowhere tends towards the conclusion that unionists do not really see themselves as 'British', but just see Britain (mostly London, as shown above) as a source of material wealth beyond what they can provide for themselves.

David Cameron may well stop the 'cargo' - and that may kill the cult.

Friday 23 April 2010

John Stevenson, Independent candidate in FST

For those who do not read the Impartial Observer (and there must be a few people left out there who don't), here is some background information on one of the three (real) independent candidates in the May 6 Westminster election – John Stevenson, who is standing in Fermanagh and South Tyrone:
John Stevenson, from Enniskillen, says he is not backed by any party or by anyone with vested interests. He vows to stand at every future Westminster and Assembly election, and says "fair play to the DUP and Sinn Fein for bringing us out of the past so we can enjoy this most beautiful part of Ireland".

He says no to factory closures in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, that Quinn Insurance will be secured, that there will be even and fair distribution of all public servants pay to negate the budget deficit, and that there will be a joint Labour and Liberal Democrat government.

Stevenson was born in Derry in 1948 into a Presbyterian family, was educated at Campbell College, Belfast; in 1972 became a member of the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester; in 1975 was made a member of the Royal Humane Society; in 1981 began a welding business in Fermanagh; and in 2003 established Titanic Rebuilt 2012 Ltd, engaged in the manufacture of builders' carpentry and metalwork.

All in all, therefore, quite an eclectic mix, without any discernable platform at all. Perhaps he expresses it better than the Impartial Observer recorded it.

His chances of winning? Well, the words 'snowball' and 'hell' come to mind.

The IRA destroyed the north's economy

Yes, they did – but not by bombs and bullets, those were just pin-pricks in comparison to the real destruction.

Yesterday's Northern Ireland 'Leaders Debate' on UTV confirmed that all the main parties agree that the economy is in a poor state, and all four agree that it is too highly dependent on the public sector – which provides around 50% of all jobs, according to Ritchie.

Why is this the case? Surely Northern Ireland had a tradition of ship-building, linen, engineering, agriculture, and so on – all 'serious' businesses that should have provided skills and infrastructure for growth. And yet, when these old sunset industries died out, nothing replaced them. Why not?

The unionist argument is that the IRA destroyed the economy by its bombs – but the IRA almost never touched the industrial sector. Harland and Wolff, Mackies, and all the rest – the linen mills, the animal feed mills, etc – were killed by simple technical progress and globalisation. The IRA never bombed an industry out of existence. When a town centre was destroyed by a bomb it was shops that were destroyed, but they bounced back. There is no shortage whatsoever of retail space in the north now. What is missing is creative industry – software, innovative technology, pharmaceuticals, leading R+D, and so on. Of course much of this can be 'bought' off-the-shelf if you have a low corporate tax like the south, but there is wealth creation in the south of England even with the same high rate of corporate tax as in Northern Ireland.

So why does the north lack a real private sector? Is it geographic isolation? No, because it shares the island with the successful southern economy (still a major exporter, despite budgetary problems), and is geographically privileged compared with Israel, one of the world's high-tech hotspots despite its isolation.

The real reason why the north lacks a private sector – and this was also alluded to in yesterday's Leaders Debate – is that the public sector crowds it out. The public sector – all those thousands of nice well-paid 9-to-5 jobs, often with inflated titles (and salaries), are simply too tempting. Why take risks, why spend years working 80-hour weeks with only a chance of making it, when for half the effort you can get a guaranteed regular income courtesy of the tax-payer?

So did the IRA's bombs really kill the private sector? The answer is a categorical no – Germany, completely flattened by the Second World War, with ruined cities, a lost generation of men, and its infrastructure destroyed, rebounded in less than 15 years to become a Wirtschaftswunder.

However, the IRA's campaign drew a whole generation of young Protestants into the public sector – often via the RUC and UDR, and led the British, in an attempt to smother discontent, to throw money at the problem, spawning what is probably Western Europe's most public-sector dependent economy. Jobs in the civil service, in quangos, and in all sorts of community organisations multiplied. For those who couldn't (or wouldn't) work, there was social welfare and public housing. And thus a whole generation found that it was possible to live relatively well without actually needing to create anything.

In its two-pronged approach to the IRA's war – military and welfare – the British government successfully killed entrepreneurship in Northern Ireland. There was no need to try, because London would always subsidise the place. Even 'loyal' unionists feel that the block grant is their 'right' – regardless of whether there are cuts in Britain. Disloyal nationalists have nothing concrete whatsoever to say about entrepreneurship beyond a hope that somehow they could persuade the British to grant the north a lower corporate tax rate.

The relationship between Northern Ireland and London is increasingly becoming like that between a junkie and his pusher – what matters most is the next hit, either through the block grant, or through the £800 million for devolving policing and justice, or through compensation for the PMS savers. Almost all of the parties, thought paying lip service to the need to 'grow the economy', are still more fixated on how much they can get out of London to pay for more and more public sector goodies – building a multi-sports stadium, building more social housing, investing in hospital construction, building new schools, and on, and on, and on.

But politicians – and certainly not those without fiscal powers – are not those who drive entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship comes from individual greed, and the desire to become rich. And in economic terms greed is good – if it leads to people setting up businesses and working hard to make them successful. These businesses employ people and buy things, leading to a virtuous circle of wealth creation.

But in the north it remains so much easier to enrich yourself – in real terms – by getting a nice comfortable public sector job. When private enterprise either pays less than the public sector, or when public sector jobs are easier to get, or simply more comfortable, many people will be tempted into the public sector.

So the IRA did destroy the north's economy, but not directly. Its campaign encouraged the British government to increase the medication, in the hope of sedating the patient. And it worked, except that now Northern Ireland is a junkie-economy addicted to public money.

The only solution for Northern Ireland, as for all junkies, is cold turkey. In good times the cure could be put off – indeed it was put off for half a generation – but the good times are over. Regardless of who wins on May 6 the flow of money from London to Northern Ireland is going to slow down. Peter Robinson last night admitted that around £200 million a year was going to be cut – but it could be more. But until there is a systematic reduction in the public sector in Northern Ireland, and not just a short-term response to the budget deficit, Northern Ireland will remain addicted. Until the rewards of private sector enterprise, hard work and self-reliance become visibly better than the 'rewards' of public dependency, the north's economy will remain poor.

Let the cuts begin. It's for our own good.

Thursday 22 April 2010


The publication of the names of the candidates for the Westminster election on May 6 also contains an indication of where they live (either their address, or the constituency in which they live). Since the basis of the semi-democratic single-seat First-Past-The-Post electoral is that MPs are elected by and for the electors of a defined area, this information allows us to see whether the prospective MPs do actually have much of an identification with their constituencies.

Using the highly scientific method of giving a score of 0 to those candidates who live within their constituencies, a score of 1 to those who live in a neighbouring constituency, and a score of 2 to those who live in a non-neighbouring constituency, the following can be observed:
  • 67 candidates live in the constituency they hope to represent (62%)
  • 24 candidates live in a neighbouring constituency to that that they hope to represent (22%)
  • 17 candidates live quite far away from the constituency they hope to represent (16%)
In terms of parties, the Greens score an impressive 0.0 - all of their 4 candidates are 'in constituency'; the SDLP is second best on 0.52; the Alliance Party third on an average score of 0.53; Sinn Féin, the TUV and UCUNF are all on 0.54; and the 'least-local' award goes to the DUP with a score of 0.55.

The constituencies most 'at risk' of carpet-baggery are South Antrim and South Belfast, each with an average score of 1.0. The most 'local' constituencies are, conversely, the neighbouring ones of Strangford and Lagan Valley. Perhaps this indicates the areas where the political class prefers to live?
The prize for biggest carpet-bagger of them all must go to the TUV's Sammy Morrison who gives an address in Fermanagh and South Tyrone but hopes to represent East Antrim! Runners up include East Belfast-based SDLP candidate Fearghal McKinney who hopes to represent Fermanagh and South Tyrone, and Belfast-based Alliance candidate Keith McGrellis who hopes to respresent Foyle. At least McKinney and McGrellis are natives of their chosen constituencies.

The Alliance Party seem to have trouble finding candidates west of the Bann – their West Tyrone candidate lives in North Down, as does their Newry and Armagh candidate. Is the Alliance Party hoping to bring civilisation to the savages?

Wednesday 21 April 2010

First thoughts on the Westminster candidates

There are too many candidates, and too many of them are well known, for a comprehensive list to be useful – so here are a few thoughts on some of the surprises or lesser-known names amongst them.

Firstly, those who are missing:

Alex Maskey – a surprise pull-out by Sinn Féin in South Belfast. Clearly Maskey was never going to win the seat, but Sinn Féin have obviously decided that it could be to their advantage to be on the side of the angels. Plus, of course, the fact that this makes a McDonnell victory more likely, and conversely a win for either the DUP or the UCUNF non-party less likely. McDonnell is still, of course, far from home and dry.

The TUV candidate in Upper Bann – despite his strong disapproval of David Simpson, Jim Allister decided not to stand a candidate against him, but rather gave a strange and illogical semi-endorsement of the UUP's 'celebrity' candidate.

Adrian Watson in South Antrim. This blog had high hopes that this multiple-bigot would split the unionist vote and shake the race up. But in the end his Westminster aspirations just fizzled out.

Then those who are odd:

Martin McAuley in North Belfast pretends that he is a serious candidate. He isn't – he's a joke. He is like Blackadder's Pitt the (even) younger, as has been cruelly suggested elsewhere.

Lyle Cubitt, an old UKUP candidate is standing in North Antrim, but without any party identification. Given that the constituency enjoys a wealth of unionist hopefuls, from the UUP though the DUP to the TUV, it is hard to understand what market segment Cubitt is aiming at. Some of his supporters have a UKUP history, but since most people of 'that persuasion' will vote for Allister, Cubitt will fail badly.

And those without a hope:

The Alliance Party everywhere and the Green Party in the few places they are standing (Strangford, North Down, South Down, South Belfast). A lost deposit costs £500, so why throw it away when history tells you that you haven't a hope of getting elected. Concentrate on local or Assembly elections first.

Eamonn McCann. Why bother? Honestly? Surely the pen is mightier than the ballot box (when you always lose)?

John Stevenson in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Who on earth is he? And why is he standing? He has no political history known to this blog, and nor do his supporters. What is their platform, and why do they think people would vote for them? His supporters are apparently drawn from the Protestant/unionist community in the constituency, but it is doubtful if they will draw many votes away from the 'unionist unity' candidate.

Ciaran McClean in West Tyrone – the return of the hopeless leftie! McClean's last outing was in 1996 when he stood for Democratic Left (DL) in the Forum elections. DL were one of the splinters of the old Workers Party, and eventually merged with the Labour Party. Is McClean standing as a Labour proxy? This blog will keep an eye on West Tyrone to see what McClean is wasting his £500 on.

Willie Frazer, the unbalanced 'victims' campaigner is standing in Newry and Armagh. He will take his few votes from the unionist pool only, thus increasing Conor Murphy's majority. One wonders who's side he is actually on.

And lastly those who could really upset an apple-cart or two (though probably won't):

William Ross in East Derry. The man Gregory Campbell beat to take the seat in 2001 now returns on behalf of the TUV to try to turn the tables, at an age when most politicians have long since retired. Ross would probably be the oldest MP if elected.

Michelle Gildernew. If she beats the unionist ganging-up and holds the seat the cheering will be audible as far away as Albertbridge Road and Dundela Avenue.

Caitriona Ruane has an outside chance of defeating Margaret Ritchie – and the more Ritchie opens her mouth the greater Ruane's chances get.

Tuesday 20 April 2010

Parsely ... !

Either the UCUNF candidate in North Down can't spell his own name, or his hardwriting is poor, or he is simply so little-known that the Electoral Office didn't know how to spell his name.

Either way, on the Statement of Persons Nominated for North Down he is shown as Parsely, Ian James - instead of Parsley, Ian James.

An inauspicious start.

Update (21 April): The EONI have corrected their Statement of Persons Nominated for North Down. But quietly, as if hoping that no-one had noticed. Parsely is now Parsley.
However, in South Down, poor Cadogan Enright is still spelled Cadwgan Enright. Time for another quiet correction?

Public Assemblies, Parades and Protests

The OFMDFM has published its Consultation Paper on the parading issue – a Code of Conduct and draft legislation. This is one of the products that was promised as part of the Hillsborough Agreement of 5 February 2010.

The Consultation Paper is a densely interwoven 67 page document and will take some time to work through. No doubt it is carefully balanced to give something to both sides.

But on first reading the paper looks extremely unfriendly to the Orange Order and its loyalist friends. Almost all of the issues that others (mostly nationalists) have been complaining about for years are strictly circumscribed, and almost all of the positions that the Orange Order has adopted are implicitly dismissed by the paper.

Nowhere, for example, is there any mention of an unfettered ‘right to march’. Nor of ‘the Queen’s highway’. On the other hand, there is copious protection of residents from sectarian harassment, a requirement that organisers take account of the local context and of any sensitive locations, an ban on alcohol consumption at or near marches, a requirement for organisers to enter dialogue, and so on. The proposal is, if anything, even less ‘orange-friendly’ than the hated Parades Commission. The kinds of abuses that every summer sees will become illegal and the penalties are severe.

In short, it seems as if the future is not orange.

The proposals are not agreed, of course, but it is hard to see how anything could be watered down – these are already the joint proposals of the two main parties. It seems as if even the DUP has tired of the annual disruption and hate-mongering that the marching season creates. These proposals, if adopted, should see the end of the orange supremacist tradition, in practical terms, if not immediately in the minds of the participants. It is likely that a clear and unambiguous set of rules that is robustly policed will quickly become accepted by all – marchers, residents and the silent majority. In a few years marches may no longer be controversial at all.

This is one more step towards ‘normality’ and should be widely supported.

Help from afar for the SDLP?

Margaret Ritchie set out her strong preference for the Labour Party as the SDLP's southern bestest friend. Right said some, wrong said others (this blog included).

But in purely practical terms, the fit is hard to see. The map below, taken from the NUIM Geography's Eye on the World blog (and cited in today's Irish Times) shows that the Labour Party in the south is, well, definitely in the south. It is weakest precisely at the points closest to the SDLP heartlands of Derry and South Down. In fact, it is almost nonexistent in all of the constituencies around the border.

This means that if Ritchie expects her new friends to canvass for her she might get a surprise. Because they simply aren't close enough to do so. Very few are going to come from Kildare, let alone Cork, to help out. The constituencies within an easy commute of the SDLP's target constituencies have virtually no Labour presence and thus no hands and feet to offer.

More evidence of Ritchie's poor judgement?

Monday 19 April 2010

A curtain-raiser for the 2011 Assembly election

With the transfer of policing and justice powers to Stormont, the question arises whether the Westminster election on May 6 is really that important in itself, or whether its importance lies in its function as a curtain-raiser for next year's Assembly election.

Considerable effort is expended contesting the 18 Westminster seats, despite the fact that the 13 or 14 Northern Irish MPs who will actually go to Westminster afterwards have effectively no power. No British government will tolerate dependency on a small group of Northern Irish MPs (despite the DUP's 'hung parliament' blackmail fantasies), and regardless of whether David Trimble gets his moment in the sun under David Cameron, the largest block that Northern Ireland is likely to be able to field will still be miniscule in comparison to the overall number of MPs. So Northern Ireland will have almost no power in a parliament that does not even legislate for many issues, as these have been devolved.

But the Assembly, where actual day-to-day administration is carried out, is elected using the same 18 constituencies as Westminster, and an Assembly election is due barely one year later than the Westminster election. So are the parties fighting the May 6 election partly in order to position themselves, and test the waters, before the Assembly election?

The outcome of the Westminster election will allow the parties to judge where they will need to invest more heavily in order to capture (or avoid losing) Assembly seats. It will allow everybody to assess the likely strengths in the next Assembly – and, of course, crucially to see whether the next First Minister will be Martin McGuinness!

The absence of the DUP from North Down, and all three unionist parties from Fermanagh and South Tyrone, will complicate matters, of course. FST is probably easier to calculate though – as long as unionism scores around 45% of the vote it will get 3 out of the 6 Assembly seats, though the breakdown between the parties can only be extrapolated from results elsewhere. Neither the DUP not the UUP will be able accurately to assess their strengths in North Down because neither is really standing there – the UCUNF candidate cannot be seen as representative of UUP strength there, as many of Hermon's votes may return to the UUP in 2011 when she is not standing.

Amongst the nationalist parties, the Westminster election is definitely a curtain-raiser for next year. There is no chance whatsoever of Fearghal McKinney being elected on May 6 so either the SDLP is trying to spoil things for Sinn Féin (not out of the question), or they are trying to establish a beach-head in FST for 2011. Likewise in several other constituencies where a nationalist victory in 2010 is impossible (East Antrim, East Belfast, Strangford, etc) the parties may simply be testing the waters to see what their chances next year will be.

Behind the crowing triumphalism (from either side) after May 6, a small army of number-crunchers will be going to work for all of the parties to calculate the likely effects of the vote on the outcome of the next Assembly election. Because that, ultimately, affects things in the north more than having a semi-retired TV personality snoozing on the green leather in Westminster. The election campaign for 2011 will start on May 7 2010.

Loyal to the (Half-)Crown

Proof again that Northern Ireland's unionists are loyal less to the crown that to the half-crown came with the news that the DUP "has indicated that it would demand a continuation of the £9.5 billion (€10.8 billion) block grant to Northern Ireland in return for its support in a hung parliament after the British general election."

Apparently the English Tories would like to replace the long-established and much criticised Barnett Formula, that sets the level of the block grant, with one based on need.

So all the fine words about being part of the 'British family' were hollow. At the end of the day the DUP – and by extension most unionists – simply see the British connection as a source of unearned cash.

A 'loyal' or 'patriotic' unionist would call upon his or her fellow-citizens to make sacrifices for the good of their country. Faced with excruciating budgetary difficulties to come, a 'loyal British citizen' would call for belt-tightening, selfless solidarity and a return of the 'Dunkirk spirit'.

But not the DUP. Their approach is: who cares whether the English, Scottish or Welsh have to cut back, we want a guarantee of no cut-backs for Northern Ireland. So, rather than everyone having to give up, say, 3% of their income, we want to give up zero and have the others give up more than 3%. To hell with 'need' as a criterion for public sector expenditure – the DUP want to use their short-lived political clout (if they get it) to extract money over and above any consideration of need. Is this blackmail? Is this prostitution? Is this moral? Is this 'British'?

That such a demand could even be made by a party that calls itself 'unionist' is amazing. The effect it will have on the British parties will, however, be obvious – they will see Northern Ireland's unionists clearly for what they are – fair-weather friends and spongers, content to blackmail the British for regional gains, and definitely not an integral part of a 'British nation'.

The fact that such blackmail by the DUP will harden the attitudes of the British against them almost makes this blog hope that they will hold the balance of power on May 7, because nobody likes being blackmailed, and as soon as they can, the victim gets revenge on the blackmailers.

Sunday 18 April 2010

SDLP-Fianna Fáil merger – not on Ritchie’s watch

Margaret Ritchie, SDLP leader, announced at the Labour Party conference in Galway yesterday that the mooted merger of the SDLP and Fianna Fáil would not be happening on her watch:
“There has been talk of us joining with Fianna Fáil and there are some in the SDLP who like such a proposition. But let me make our position clear.

Merger with Fianna Fail? - not on my watch.”

Given the audience – a hopeful anti-Fianna Fáil opposition party – it is hardly surprising that Ritchie took such a strong position against Fianna Fáil. And the SDLP, after all, is supposedly a socialist party, so closer links with Labour would make apparent sense.

But is the SDLP really a ‘socialist party’? And, equally importantly, if it thinks it is, should it really be one? After all, it is more than anything else the party that is supported by the conservative Catholic section of the north’s population – farmers, professionals, civil servants, and so on. The more radical side of northern nationalism is catered for by Sinn Féin.

And does northern nationalism really need two ‘socialist’ parties, and no other real choice? What of nationalist conservatives, Christian Democrats, capitalists, etc? Who are they expected to vote for, if one of the two nationalist parties “shares a special bond with Irish Labour” (according to Ritchie), and the other sees its allies in national liberation movements worldwide?

Northern nationalism needs more than a statist labour party and a ‘revolutionary’ party. These two positions occupy only a part of the political spectrum – though in welfare-dependent Northern Ireland this may be less obvious than in real countries. If the north is to have any hope of building a real economy, and a real society, then it must have parties that represent the full spectrum of opinion.

For that reason Ritchie was wrong to nail her colours to the Labour mast. Labour represents a statist approach, directed by the needs of the large public sector unions. It is economically naïve and intervenionist, and lacks the skills to develop the economy and thus bring prosperity to everyone. Ritchie should have maintained the SDLP’s policy of neutrality between the southern parties – accepting support from each. By identifying too closely with one minor party, Ritchie risks cutting the SDLP off from the largest and (still) most successful party – Fianna Fáil. Fianna Fáil would make a much better fit for the SDLP – as a populist party, including business, labour, urban and rural interests. Fianna Fáil is a genuinely broad church – although it is very close to business it also has overseen the longest and most successful era of industrial peace with the trades unions.

With Fianna Fáil the SDLP could have developed as a wider, more inclusive and populist party. With Labour the SDLP is backing into a statist cul-de-sac, and is leaving sections of its potential support uncatered for. Where they can turn is hard to see – certainly not to the right-wing unionist parties.

Ritchie’s closer identification with Labour may end up creating more space for Fianna Fáil to enter northern politics in its own right, offering a Christian Democratic electoral platform that would eat into the SDLP’s core support. With Sinn Féin to their left, the SDLP would then find itself squeezed – and those who know politics in the south know that Fianna Fáil is a professional and determined party. If it sets out to attract the centrist and right-of-centre Catholic vote, it will do so without mercy, and, thanks to Ritchie, the SDLP could be extinguished.

Ritchie’s loss of southern neutrality could end up killing off her party entirely. Her watch may turn out to be the last watch.

Cobain’s lack of interest in justice

The UUP (sorry, “UCUNF”) candidate for North Belfast, Fred Cobain, has demonstrated again why unionism is such a dysfunctional creed.

In response to the new Justice Minister’s first steps in office, Cobain focussed on the fact that Ford had held talks with his southern counterpart.

As Cobain put it:
"David Ford has barely warmed his Executive seat, and already he is latching on to the mantra of working across Ireland 'both North and South'. "We can thank the DUP for gerrymandering in a Minister who is, by his own admission, 'agnostic' on the Union.

The Justice Ministry - probably the most sensitive post in the Executive - has been handed on a silver platter to a man who made a monumental gaffe over Bloody Sunday, only to turn tail and cower the minute he was challenged. Now we have proof positive of Minister Ford's priorities, given that 'on-going cross-border police co-operation' and a meeting with the Republic's Justice Minister and Garda Commissioner was his primary concern on his anointment.”

So Cobain thinks that the primary issue should be whether the Minister is a unionist? Rather than a Minister who seeks to cooperate closely with the adjacent jurisdiction?

Do you have to be a ‘unionist’ to pursue justice? Only a fool would believe that – but it seems that Cobain does.

And what on earth has he against “on-going cross-border police co-operation” and meetings with the Republic's Justice Minister and Garda Commissioner? If they help to improve cross-border cooperation again, for example, dissident republican violence? Would he prefer the violence to the cooperation? What a bizarre point of view!

Cobain simply demonstrates (yet again) that unionism is a sick and diseased belief system, that gives higher value to ‘unionism’ than to cooperation, neighbourliness, efficiency, common sense, peace and security.

Has Cobain ever looked at a map? Has he no idea that what happens in the north and south are inextricably linked? Crime and dissident activity respect no artificial borders, and we all share a small island – if Ford did not seek immediate cooperation with his southern counterpart, then he would be failing in his job – but to Mr Cobain such failure, and the deaths, destruction, crime and insecurity that such a failure might lead to is less important than whether Ford is a unionist. Cobain is pathetic, but unfortunately all too typical of unionism. Until his ill creed is defeated no-one in Ireland, north or south, will be certain of getting the efficient governance that we all need.

Watson will not stand

What a pity. The News Letter reports that:

"THE UUP Mayor of Antrim - who lost out on being the Conservative and Unionists candidate in South Antrim - has come out in support of Sir Reg Empey in his attempt to take the seat.

Adrian Watson, who in recent weeks publicly vented his anger at the party for not selecting him to take on sitting DUP MP William McCrea, yesterday accompanied Sir Reg to the Electoral Office where he submitted his nomination as the Conservatives and Unionists' candidate.

Highlighting the Rev McCrea's Westminster expense claims and multiple political jobs, Mr Watson told the News Letter that he believed the UUP leader would take the seat."

This blog was unashamedly looking forward to seeing how the outcome would be affected by a wildcard independent unionist candidate - i.e. Watson. But now it seems that this will not happen. South Antrim remains an intriguing contest, but not as fascinating as it could have been.

The Adrian Watson Show, which promised so much entertainment, has fizzled out.

Friday 16 April 2010

Upper Bann is a marginal seat

That, at least, is the opinion of Jim Allister. He said that the TUV “will not fight any of the marginal seats. It will fight only in eight safe unionist seats and two safe nationalist seats.” The two ‘safe’ nationalist seats are South Down and Mid Ulster.

But if the TUV are not fighting Upper Bann, then they must consider it marginal. Because, of course, last September Jim Allister himself said:
"I look forward to the Westminster election and the verdict on the betrayers of Traditional Unionism. In politics you expect most from those who know the truth and brag of their steadfastness. That is why one of the men who disappointed me the most is the outgoing MP for Upper Bann. He won his seat by opposing the betrayal of Trimble. Now, he deserves to lose it for operating the very Belfast Agreement system which Trimble bequeathed us. I have to say, with a heavy heart, there was as much honesty and maybe less deceit in the politics of those who spawned the Belfast Agreement than in those who having blasted Trimble then gave us Martin McGuinness as our Joint First Minister."
So last year Allister was determined to bring David Simpson down, but this year he is not even going to stand a candidate against him – for fear of Upper Bann being won by Sinn Féin if the unionist vote splits.

It seems that his disappointment with Simpson was not really so great. He ended his climb-down from opposing Simpson with a rather weak and pathetic near-endorsement of the UUP:

“It is not for me to prescribe how TUV supporters should vote in each constituency where TUV is not standing, but I’m sure they will weigh the circumstances and opportunities of each. Likewise, while there is little to choose between the two pro-Belfast Agreement parties, each of which support terrorists in government, I expect many will have regard to the recent gifting to Sinn Fein, by the DUP, of its strategic goal on policing and justice. At least the UUP did the right thing in voting against transferring such powers to the terrorist-inclusive Executive at Stormont.”
Imagine the headlines: “TUV endorses UUP”. Poor Allister is turning in figures-of-eight – he hates the DUP (and especially Simpson … well, last year anyway), but can’t stand against him in case the real baddies get ahead, so he half-endorses the party of David Trimble. Is he confused, or just losing the plot?

The Schoolteachers, Doctors and Lawyers Party

One of the jibes that is often thrown at the SDLP is that its initials stand for Schoolteachers, Doctors and Lawyers Party.

A glance at their candidates for the Westminster election shows how accurate this jibe might actually be. They are standing 18 candidates – one in each constituency – probably the only party to do so. Of these 18:

Five are (or were) teachers: McCamphill, Muldoon, Bradley, Joe Byrne and O'Loan.

Three work(ed) in the medical sector, though only one is actually a doctor: Logan, McDonnell and Kelly.

Two are lawyers: Maginness and Attwood.

That makes 10 – more than half of the total. To these can be added the professional politicians, who appear not to have worked outside the political bubble at all: Durkan, Michelle Byrne and Ritchie.

Only five of the SDLP's candidates come from outside the narrow confines of Schoolteachers, Doctors and Lawyers, and the Party. None – not one – appears to work in industry or as a private sector employee. How effectively the party can represent those who are trying to actually create wealth, rather than spend it, is uncertain. The party seems to be composed almost entirely – at the level of its candidates – by people who live off the public purse. This is hardly a rarity in the north, of course, but it bodes ill for their ability to ever be able to manage a market economy, if that day should ever come.

Now, of course, another of the jibes (from unionists only, this time) is that SDLP stands for the South Down and Londonderry Party. After May 6 we'll see if this turns out to be accurate – if Ritchie and Durkan are the only (re)-elected SDLP MPs.

The last of the jibes – from Sinn Féin supporters only – is that SDLP stands for the Stoop Down Low Party (aka the 'Stoops'). This blog does not subscribe to that point of view, despite regrettable lapses by the SDLP in the past. In recent months the SDLP seems to have been trying to show a bit of backbone – only time will tell whether this came too late.

Local government reorganisation delayed?

There are reports circulating that the planned reorganisation of the local government in the north – including the reduction in the number of councils from 26 to 11 – may not, in fact, take place in time for next year's planned local elections.

In fact, the local government elections should have taken place last year (they run on a four year cycle, and the last were in 2005), but were delayed to allow the reorganisation to take place.

But if the delays are as severe as reported, there may be no alternative but to hold elections next year for the existing 26 councils, and then reorganise before the following elections.

It's still all about Irish unity

Just in case some unionists have gotten the wrong end of the stick – particularly about John Hume's 'post nationalist' nonsense – or have actually believed their own propaganda about Sinn Féin having 'surrendered' – the two nationalist parties have just reminded them that, for both Sinn Féin and the SDLP, the ultimate goal remains Irish unity.

Margaret Ritchie, launching the SDLP election campaign said:

"So let me spell it out loud and clear: Our job is nowhere near completed:

Yes we secured Civil Rights and Equality; We got the IRA to see the futility of its campaign and yes we got everyone to see that a powersharing devolved Government was essential. All basic SDLP objectives – all delivered.

But we are now targeting the next set of fundamentals which affect peoples lives. We are going to set the political agenda for the next generation by focusing on creating prosperity, building a Shared Future and planning, credibly, for Irish Unity"

"The SDLP believes in a United Ireland. Unambiguously.

We will work every day to lay the foundations upon which a United Ireland can be built – mutual trust, respect and protection for minorities.

We will take our unique ideas for achieving unity to the heart of decision-making in Dublin and London. We will press every party in Westminster to engage around the SDLP’s radical thinking on unity and our work will present people with the first detailed view of what Unity would look like - ever produced.

Further, we will not promise something unrealistic like Irish Unity by 2016, simply because it is the anniversary of the Easter Rising! Unlike others, we will be credible on Irish Unity."

Gerry Adams, also launching his party's election campaign yesterday, said:
"Sinn Féin is the united Ireland party. The all-Ireland party. The party with elected representatives in every forum on this island. From Cork to Derry, from Kerry to Down people vote Sinn Féin.

We are in the business of nation building. As Irish republicans we have put the issue of Irish re-unification onto the political agenda in London, Dublin, Washington and Belfast. We have engaged the Diaspora across the world in the campaign for a united Ireland.

We are also engaging with unionists on this issue at civic and community, as well as political level, and on social and economic, on bread and butter issues, as well as on the constitutional question.

Our vision for a united Ireland is unique amongst the parties in this election."

So when the votes are counted, on May 7 unionism should look closely at the combined nationalist score – because this represents the proportion of the electorate who 'unambiguously' support Irish reunification. If the proportion of the electorate that supports the two nationalist parties has increased from that of 2005 (41.8%, though without Kieran Deeny this would have been at least 1% higher) or 2001 (42.7%), then it is time to start worrying.

The nationalist proportion of the vote in Westminster elections has been increasing fairly steadily for a generation, and is getting closer to parity with unionism. Unionism, so long the 'majority community' is very close to simply having a plurality – and ultimately a minority. As the elderly – predominantly Protestant – die, and as the young – majority Catholic – start to vote, the gap will continue to close.

So, unionism – read their lips. It's all about Irish unity. And it's getting closer.

Thursday 15 April 2010

Poster wars

Elections bring out the worst in the political class - smears, allegations, innuendo, ad hominem attacks, lies, deceptions, dishonesty, and so on - but at least they provide an opportunity for those of a creative nature to put their skills into practice.

The now famous case of 'Kristen' has inspired others to create (or search for) posters attacking or ridiculing their opponents.

The 'Don't Vote Tory' set are fun, and seem to have been created by someone in Northern Ireland, since half of them deal with northern politicos. Here are two of my favourites - regular readers will recognise why:

Wednesday 14 April 2010

"None. Out. None. Absolutely none whatsoever"

Strong words? Pretty definite, no?

Well actually, they were the exact words of David Cameron when asked last year if his party would stand aside in any Northern Ireland constituency.
Asked whether his party would stand aside in any Ulster constituency, he said: "None. Out. None. Absolutely none whatsover.

We're a United Kingdom party. I don't stand aside in Glasgow because it might help the Liberals. I don't stand aside in East London because it might help the Greens."

Less than a year later, though, his cumbersome contraption, UCUNF, has … um … stood aside in Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

Would you buy a used car off someone like Cameron?

A hung parliament may make voting pacts obsolete

One of the highlights of the current Westminster election campaign so far has been its focus on voting pacts – largely on the unionist side, but more recently also on the nationalist side. There is no doubt that the existence of voting pacts can (and probably will) influence the overall outcome of the election in Northern Ireland.

However, in Britain the media attention is focussed more on the possibility of a hung parliament, and on what the outcome of such a situation might be.

One very obvious outcome is that one or other smaller party may hold the balance of power, and thus be in a position to extract benefits from its position. The DUP have hopes in that direction, as do the SNP. But the most obvious candidate for 'king-maker' is the Liberal Democrats (LibDems).

Today the LibDems published their election manifesto, and although it barely mentions Northern Ireland (and why would it, the LibDems are an exclusively British party), buried deep within its 112 pages is a commitment that may turn out to be highly significant to Northern Ireland's electoral future, should the LibDems be in a strong bargaining position after May 6.

On page 87 the LibDems return to an issue that has motivated them for years, but which they have never yet had the power to change – the inherent unfairness of the First-Past-The-Post electoral system. This is the system which famously gave the overwhelmingly nationalist voters of West Tyrone a unionist MP in 1997, gave the marginally unionist-majority South Belfast an SDLP MP in 2005, and may well give the marginally nationalist Fermanagh and South Tyrone an 'independent' (but Conservative affiliated) unionist on May 6.

The LibDem manifesto states that:
Liberal Democrats will:
• Change politics and abolish safe seats by introducing a fair, more proportional voting system for MPs. Our preferred Single Transferable Vote system gives people the choice between candidates as well as parties. Under the new system, we will be able to reduce the number of MPs by 150.

This promise also forms part of the LibDems headline '4 steps to a fairer Britain'.

Leaving aside for the time being the issue of reducing the number of MPS (though this is interesting in itself), the possibility of introducing STV proportional representation (PR-STV) in Westminster elections would revolutionise them in Northern Ireland. PR-STV would mean that voters can vote for whatever first preference candidate they want, knowing that if s/he is not elected, their vote will transfer to their second preference, and so on.

Voting pacts would be obsolete, as would calls for 'unionist unity' or 'nationalist unity'. Two, three or ten unionist or nationalist candidates could contest each seat, and as long as their votes transferred within their own blocks, the outcome would be fairly proportional to the votes. If, as would be logical, the PR-STV system was used in multi-member constituencies (as is the case in all other elections in Northern Ireland), then the outcome would tend to represent the share of the overall vote received by the parties or blocks.

In the currently controversial case of Fermanagh and South Tyrone, the LibDems proposal, if taken to its logical conclusion, would see the seat as merely one of, say, three in the west of Northern Ireland (e.g. FST, West Tyrone and Mid Ulster combined into a single three-seater). In such a constituency the outcome would be two nationalists and one unionist, which is close to the actual share of the vote in that area.

If the number of seats is reduced, perhaps to 15, the whole of Northern Ireland could be divided into four constituencies; three 4-seaters and a 3-seater. Depending on the shape of these constituencies the outcome would vary, but it would certainly be fairer than the current outcome (in Belfast, for instance, where nationalists and unionists are almost equal in number, May 7 might see three unionists and only one nationalist – or the reverse. Under PR-STV that would be a fairer 2-2 split).

At this stage, of course, the LibDems promise is merely a promise – they may not get to hold the balance of power, and even if they do, they may not be able to force the main governing party to accept their plans for PR-STV. But it certainly would make more of a long-term impact on Northern Ireland than the tired old arguments about voting pacts. This is an issue worth watching.

Unionist unity, nationalist unity

Yesterday this blog suggested that nationalists should copy the unionists, who have selected a 'unity' candidate for Fermanagh and South Tyrone – and thereby beat them.

It seems that this blog was not alone in that line of thinking. It was revealed that Sinn Féin had suggested voting pacts to the SDLP and were shot down. Margaret Ritchie, SDLP leader, called such pacts 'sectarian'. She may be right, or she may also be mistaking constitutional preference for religious affiliation.

While the lack of affection between Sinn Féin and the SDLP is evident, the fact remains that they are closer to each other than either is to any other party, and both compete for the nationalist vote. How the nationalist voters will react to the loss of FST, thanks to the SDLP's hopeless candidacy, will not be seen until the next Assembly election.

It is clear, though, that if unionism is to coalesce around 'unity candidates' in sensitive constituencies, a divided nationalism will suffer. It is true, of course, that such 'suffering' is fairly limited since Westminster has less and less direct control over people's lives as time goes on, but the psychological impact of unionist gloating should not be underestimated. Even if Westminster is of marginal importance – and the power of Northern Irish MPs is negligible – the mere fact of seeing a proportionate number of nationalist MPs elected is important. The proportion of MPs that are nationalist is a sign of the proportion of Northern Ireland's people who are nationalist. When nationalism has 8 MPs and unionism has 10 MPs, it is difficult for unionism to pretent that it is the 'voice of Northern Ireland'. If both blocks had 9 apiece, the impact would be enormous. But if the current unionist scheming bears fruit, May 7 could dawn with 12 unionists and only 6 nationalists – leading unionism to claim, incorrectly, that they represent a large majority of Northern Irish opinion.

This blog is not beholden to any one party, and sees them as mere vehicles towards an end – the reunification and independence of our country. So if one, or both, of the current nationalist parties disappears, this blog will not shed a tear. However, reality demonstrates that nationalists are a diverse people – some are socialists, some capitalists, some big farmers, some unemployed, some students, some Catholics, some Protestants, many atheists … As such, no single party could reflect their diversity, and so the need for different parties remains – Sinn Féin for the more radical, the SDLP for the more conservative. But these parties, as long as they still exist, should recognise that the possession of Westminster seats is symbolic – not just for them as parties, but for nationalism as a whole. Where seats are clearly marginal, they should be able to come together to agree a common position, and the weaker party in each constituency should stand aside. This, if agreed amicably in advance, should not be seen as weakness, but as a way of ensuring strength. The Assembly election results should be the guide to whether such 'standing aside' is necessary, and to which party should stand aside. As such, Assembly elections should be fought without fear or favour, and both parties should compete against each other.

In such a way nationalist confidence can be maintained, and the result of all elections, local, Assembly, Westminster and European, could reflect real nationalist strength. Pacts between nationalist parties are not 'sectarian', but political, as their goal is not related to any religious objective, but to a clearly political one.

This blog has frequently remarked that unionist disunity is nationalism's friend – the TUV being a particularly close friend – but the corollary of that is that nationalist disunity is unionism's friend. This election may show up the cost of nationalist disunity – but it is to be hoped that the two nationalist parties will survey the damage after May 6 and come to their senses.

Tuesday 13 April 2010

Connor poses a long-term risk for nationalism

The agreement by the DUP and UCUNF to withdraw their candidates in Fermanagh and South Tyrone in favour of a 'unionist unity' candidate poses long-term challenges for nationalists in the constituency.

Unionists in the constituency, despite having proved that David Cameron is a liar, will be ecstatic about the outcome, which is an almost certain win for them. The Tories, despite having to mumble half-excuses about how "Fermanagh and South Tyrone has characteristics that are unique within the UK" will, at the end of the day, probably have another vote to count on in Westminster – and that is all they really care about. The DUP have eaten the most humble pie, though. Despite being the largest unionist party in the constituency in recent elections, they have had to stand aside for a man who will lend his support to their opponents. Whether the 'recapture' of the seat for unionism as a result of their pressure for a pact will adequately compensate them, we may have to wait another year to see.

The 'unionist unity' candidate, Rodney Connor, is himself part of the problem for nationalism. He is apparently a decent man and quite well thought of by nationalists in the area. How strong his unionism is, is open to question – the unionist parties think that he is 'one of theirs', but he has joined neither party, and insists that he will act in the interests of the whole constituency. Given that that constituency is majority nationalist, it will be interesting to see how he does that.

But potentially more damaging for nationalism will be the loss of the constituency. History shows us that when the seat is held by a nationalist – especially a 'nationalist unity' individual like Frank Maguire (MP from 1974-1981) – the nationalist vote is high, but when a unionist wins the seat – usually as a result of a split nationalist vote – it seems that some nationalists withdraw from voting. After Ken Maginnis won the seat in 1983 thanks to the decision by the SDLP to stand again, the number of nationalist votes tumbled. Maginnis retained the seat thanks to his role as 'unionist unity' candidate in 1986, 1987, 1992 and 1997. In all of these elections both Sinn Féin and the SDLP stood, and nationalists knew that they could not win the seat. The nationalist vote dropped as a significant proportion simply didn't bother to turn out.

Although the constituency lost the heavily nationalist Coalisland area to Mid Ulster in the 1995 boundary revision, and FST became a more evenly split constituency, it remained winnable for nationalism. The result in 2001, when Sinn Féin finally took the seat, thanks to a split in unionism – proved that there were more latent nationalist votes in the constituency than unionist votes. They had just failed to turn out between 1986 and 1997.

And therein lies the problem for nationalism. Faced with a 'unionist unity' candidate and a nationalist split, many voters may again fail to turn out. If Connor wins, subsequent Westminster elections may see the effects of nationalist demoralisation in the constituency, and this could last a decade or more. FST contains a significant number of hard-line republicans who are probably less inclined towards 'constitutional politics' than others, and they are more likely to withdraw from active participation if they feel that it is a waste of time, with a 'unionist unity' victory inevitable.

So Connor has the possibility of not just taking the seat in 2010, but retaining it with increasing majorities for years to come. Only when nationalism senses that it has a good chance of winning, either through a 'nationalist unity' candidate, or a unionist split, will it return to the ballot box in force. The lessons that unionism will draw from the Connor experience are that they must never again split their vote in FST, so nationalism has only three possible hopes in the constituency: either a unity candidate in the short term, or the decimation of one of the nationalist parties, or the slow option of waiting for demography to whittle away the unionist numbers.

The first option – a unity candidate, is not likely in 2010, and barely likely even at the next election. The mutual dislike between Sinn Féin and the SDLP is such that neither would happily give way to the other. The best option in this case would be a 'non-political' unity candidate – someone popular through sport or the media, for example. Fearghal McKinney may have been such a man, but he was seduced by the SDLP's pointless lure.

The second option – the decimation of the SDLP – seemed quite likely in recent years, but the SDLP has made efforts to revive itself, and certainly is not out of the race yet. If it fails badly on May 6, either in terms of votes or seats, its days may be numbered – but that will be too late for FST this time.

The last option - demographics - though slow, is more certain. The graph above shows the number of actual votes received by unionism and nationalism in Westminster elections in FST since 1970. The nationalist number is quite volatile, and includes a decade of demoralised underperformance. The unionist number, however, is less volatile and more consistent. And it is consistently declining – the trend is clearly downward, reflecting Protestant demographics in the constituency. In brief, Protestants are a declining proportion of the constituency's population – from over 50% of the population amongst those aged over 60 (in the 2001 Census) (on the right hand side of the graph), to below 40% of those aged 25 and younger (in the 2001 Census) (on the left hand side of the graph):

So it is likely that demographics will return FST to nationalism in the future, if Connor takes it in 2010. But a quicker and better route would be for nationalism to play unionism at their own game – unity – and beat them.