Monday 31 May 2010

A Unity of Added Potential

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, at least he admits that.

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

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

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

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

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

Fermanagh and South Tyrone – the story of a Westminster constituency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The battle for 1916

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 28 May 2010

Boo hoo!

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

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

This blog is irreligious, but shares the sentiment.

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

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

Thursday 27 May 2010

What an embarrassment

Margaret Ritchie, a so-called Irish nationalist:

When an old woman dies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 26 May 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is the Minister suffering from a case of autophobia?

Quality of living

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 25 May 2010

O'Loan sent to detention

It seems that SDLP headmistress Margaret Ritchie called in naughty boy Declan O'Loan for a stern talking-to. And despite whatever excuses the naught boy could offer, Headmistress Ritchie has sent him to detention.
The SDLP has said the party whip has been removed from the North Antrim MLA Declan O'Loan following his call for a single nationalist party. Mr O'Loan will now not be able to meetings of the party's assembly group.

It said party leader Margaret Ritchie took action following a meeting with Mr O'Loan on Tuesday. The party said the whip has been removed for an indefinite period which the leader will decide.
So, despite O'Loan's (probably unwilling) retraction of his original statement, he has still been punished "for an indefinite period which the leader will decide". This implies that he did not prostrate himself before her today – he clearly argued back, and as we all know, naughty boys who argue back are punished more severely!

The SDLP will presumably now need a new spokesman for finance and personnel, since O'Loan is in detention for the foreseeable future.

Will he take his punishment without a murmur, or will he fight back? That is today's Question of the Day. Tomorrow's question of the day might be whether the SDLP has a future now that it has opted for totalitarianism at the top. O'Loan's 'retraction' yesterday was almost Stalinesque.

This blog has never been a fan of Ritchie, but she seems to be driving the SDLP over a cliff much quicker than anyone expected.

Whither O'Loan?

Declan O'Loan's solo-run in favour of nationalist unity, and subsequent rapid slap-down from his party (the SDLP) places a question-mark over his future in the party.

O'Loan is the SDLP's spokesperson on Finance and Personnel, and is Vice Chair of the Assembly's Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee. As such he is a relative heavy-weight in the party, and not a political novice. His statement in favour of "a major realignment of northern nationalism" cannot have been made lightly – he knew that it was controversial, and that it would be seen as a direct challenge to the leadership of his own party.

Perhaps he was surprised by the rapidity and severity of the party's reaction. It forced him to retract his statement within hours, and left him humiliated, isolated and in the dog-house.

Where does that leave his political future?

O'Loan is a mainstay of the SDLP in North Antrim, but North Antrim is certainly not an SDLP stronghold. Although he was elected to the Assembly in 2007, the constituency has changed and a proportion of the nationalist electorate that elected him is now in East Antrim. In fact the SDLP in North Antrim was already suffering before the boundary changes – when Seán Farren was its standard-bearer it used to get around 16-18% of the vote, but by 2007 this was down to 12.2%. This year, with the new constituency boundaries, the SDLP managed only 8.8% of the vote – too few to have a serious hope of retaining O'Loan's seat in the Assembly. According to the recent Westminster election results, unionism has over 5 Assembly quotas in North Antrim, but nationalism has only one-and-a-half. Sinn Féin was the dominant nationalist party in the constituency both in 2007 and in 2010 (though Daithí McKay has also lost a lot of votes with the transfer of Glenaan, Glenariff and Glendun to East Antrim), and there is no reason to expect a change in that situation. The single nationalist seat in North Antrim would thus probably have been won by McKay even before O'Loan's recent difficulties.

Now, however, O'Loan is in his party's dog-house – and how can he seriously campaign for a party that he effectively wanted to see disappear?

Yet for the SDLP to dump O'Loan would be electoral suicide in North Antrim. He would take with him many supporters, including those with whom he had discussed his original 'nationalist unity' ideas. As he himself put it: "I have discussed the proposition of a new single nationalist party with the grassroots SDLP membership in North Antrim, including the councillors, and it was very strongly supported."

The next few days or weeks ought to clarify O'Loan's position – and the SDLP's. His belief in nationalist unity will make him a liability next year in the Assembly elections if he stands, but if he is 'de-selected' by the SDLP then the party will self-destruct in North Antrim. Will he take the next step, and resign from the party? And if he does, will he be alone?

It is not out of the question that O'Loan's statement could become the catalyst for precisely what he was seeking – a major realignment of northern nationalism – by splitting the SDLP down the middle. The party is already divided between the Ritchie and McDonnell factions, and between the Fianna Fáilers and the others. If O'Loan leaves, and takes other with him, the rump that would be left may not be enough to constitute a serious party any more.

If O'Loan leaves, his destination would be very interesting. It is very unlikely to be Sinn Féin – and the only other serious possibility is Fianna Fáil, which does not yet have a presence in the constituency. Any other destinations would effectively end his political career – but maybe it is already over?

Monday 24 May 2010

Nationalist unity call – inevitable but wrong

The news that the SDLP’s Declan O’Loan had mused about nationalist unity, before being slapped down by his party, is hardly surprising. It reflects an almost inevitable reaction to the calls for unionist unity.

Many have said it, and many are right – ‘unionist unity’ would lead almost inevitably to formal or de facto ‘nationalist unity’. Fermanagh and South Tyrone showed that nationalist voters are willing – even without any formal pacts – to vote for the strongest nationalist candidate when faced with unionist attempts to gain a seat by appealing to their tribe.

O'Loan said that his discussions with constituents on nationalist unity were very strongly supported, but he backed down and withdrew his original statement saying it "does not represent established party policy." The SDLP is reported to be "furious" and that O'Loan was "told in no uncertain terms to withdraw the statement".

However, statements made cannot be unmade. Eggs have been broken, and cannot be put back together. O’Loan had earlier said that: "I believe that a major realignment of northern nationalism is now called for and I think that this means the formation of a new single nationalist party”.

The genie is now out of the bottle – and FST has shown how nationalist unity can work in the interests of the nationalist electorate. Clearly the Ritchie leadership of the SDLP does not agree, but she is, at best, a controversial leader. She does not have the full support of her whole party, despite what some might say. There must be considerable tensions in the SDLP at present, and the long run-up to next year’s Assembly election will not help.

A single nationalist party is, of course, no more rational than a single unionist party – except that nationalism needs to achieve a specific single act before it can move to ‘normal’ politics. Nationalism shares the need to succeed in breaking the link with Britain, regardless of the nature of politics that follows that step. Unionism, by contrast, is already operating within their chosen polity, and thus unionist unity (and indeed unionism itself) is a political nonsense.

However, according to the Good Friday Agreement, the act of breaking the link with Britain will be based upon a referendum when it appears that circumstances are favourable. There is no need, before that date, for nationalists to agree on much, and thus no need for a single nationalist party. Nationalists can be – and are – left or right wing, environmentalists, liberals or libertarians. There is no reason for them to all vote for a single party or a single candidate, and indeed in many cases this would be almost impossible. It would be better, and more democratic, for nationalists to vote according to their political preferences, with the constitutional question as a background. In other words, nationalists should be able to vote according to other issues – economic, social, environmental, etc – in the first instance, and then to transfer their vote to another nationalist party if they wish. In this way, the ‘issue’ politics are registered, as well as the constitutional’ politics.

Many voters have two concerns – an issue, and the constitutional issue – and voting pacts between competing parties allow the voters to register a particular socio-economic preference, without damaging the overall (background) nationalist vote. A single nationalist party, however, would disenfranchise many voters who wish to express a preference for, e.g. more or less public spending, or more respect for the environment, etc. Some voters who find themselves unable to express these sorts of preferences might simply not vote, and their voices would be unheard.

It is thus better for nationalism, for democracy, and for all of our futures, that there are a variety of competing parties within the nationalist family. Already, with only two – both irresponsibly statist – many voices are unheard. Nationalism needs more, not fewer, parties. The question of who their voters transfer to is less important. If a right-wing nationalist votes for a future right-of-centre nationalist party, but transfers to a right-of-centre unionist party, this is not illogical. The first preference – for a party within the nationalist family – would be sufficient to indicate a constitutional preference. If both nationalists and unionists vote in this way the ‘constitutional referendum’ nature of every Northern Irish election is retained, but a connection to ‘issues politics’ can grow. Of course, if the voter is also concerned to register a constitutional position, then s/he can transfer to another nationalist party.

Over time, parties based upon issues – economic, social, environmental, etc – would grow in strength, but in parallel within each ‘constitutional’ community. Voters may become more strategic, but the double meaning of each vote would not be lost.

So, Declan O’Loan, forget about 'nationalist unity' – it would diminish nationalism, both numerically and philosophically. Instead, try to offer the voters a choice of outcomes, and let the voter – who, like the customer, is king – decide what they want, instead of being faced with an uncompetitive monopoly.

Sunday 23 May 2010

11 Councils - Withering on the vine

The plan to replace the current 26 district councils with 11 appears to be heading for disaster. The News Letter reports that:

At best, the proposed new councils will miss the original deadline of May 2011, and the local elections next year will be to the existing 26 bodies. At worst, the 11 new councils will never materialise.
This blog already noted that the plan was heading for the rocks six months ago – but on 20 May the Minister responsible, Edwin Poots of the DUP, ‘refused to confirm that the plan would go ahead

This blog has never been a fan of the proposal, and considers that it would have represented more of a loss than a gain for nationalism. As this blog said on 26 January 2009:

Sinn Féin could have blocked the change to the 11-Council model, by insisting on a cross-community vote. But they did not, and acquiesced to the DUP's proposal.
By so doing, they actually reduced both the area and the population of the districts that would have come under nationalist control, and consigned a greater number of nationalists to life under unionist political domination.
It seems that nationalist councillors agree with this blog:
In Ballymena, the sole Sinn Fein member, Monica Digney, said: “The whole thing was a damp squib from the start – far too ambitious and too difficult to achieve.

On the North Coast, the SDLP’s John Dallat (formerly of Coleraine Borough Council) said: “It’s just as well it’s dying on its feet. It was a massive form of gerrymandering and I’m surprised that Sinn Fein fell for it in the first place. We were supposed to merge with Moyle, Limavady and Ballymoney which was much too ungainly. Let’s hope it withers on the vine.”


Institute of Directors comes off the fence

Closer collaboration between the Republic and Northern Ireland would help both economies face the challenges posed by the need to reduce national deficits’, Joanne Stuart, Chairman of the Institute of Directors in Northern Ireland said on Thursday.

“One aspect that is missing in this debate is how we leverage our relationship with the south. We are very aware of the challenges that the Republic is facing – and is dealing with - and we have a unique opportunity to explore how we could work better on an all-island basis.

“While recognising that north and south remain independent jurisdictions, we believe the potential for even greater synergies exists across a range of areas including transport, health, energy, tourism and economic development.”
The IoD goes on to say that:
Ann Riordan, President of the IoD in Ireland, echoed Ms Stuart’s desire for closer working on an all-island basis. She said: “Cooperation between North and South will be a key factor in strengthening our economies. By sharing the knowledge and expertise of our business leaders and leveraging the wealth of talent that exists on both sides of the border, we can develop strong and cohesive business networks, offering real and sustainable benefits to both economies.”

What would the IoD know? Well:
The Institute of Directors in Ireland is the representative body for senior, strategic business professionals in Ireland. Members include chief executives, chairpersons, board members, senior executives and partners of large national and international entities in Ireland.

So, senior, strategic business professionals including executives, chairpersons, board members, senior executives and partners of large national and international entities think that ‘the potential for even greater synergies exists’. Even a blind man could read that message! The border is a business and economic impediment, north and south, and the people responsible for creating wealth – as opposed to just spending other people’s money – want less border and more north-south co-operation.

As this blog has pointed out before, the border makes no sense and diminishes the lives and welfare of all Irish people, north and south. It must be removed.

The unionist response to the opinion of the business class will be, as always, a deafening silence. Unionism is not a rational creed – it does not seek the economic betterment of the north – it merely seeks to block the tide of ‘Irishness’. It is, to all extents and purposes, merely an ethnic nationalist movement, with the added spice of sectarianism.

Nobody claims that the IoD is republican – or even nationalist. They are rationalist. And their rationalism tells them that unionism’s border is wrong. Presumably, behind the scenes in quiet fora and meetings, the IoD is pushing its position. Economic rationality tends to win at the end of the day – ask the Soviet Union!

Elections, demography, and economics – all pushing in one direction. Unionism’s nasty little statelet is doomed.

Saturday 22 May 2010

Saulters’ “one big unionist party”

Orange Order Grand Master Robert Saulters believes that there should be one big unionist party:
"It must be a party that is big enough and modern enough to allow people with conflicting opinions to work together for the common purpose of maintaining the union."
So set it up then, Saulters. And then you’ll see how wrong you are, and how completely out of touch the archaic Orange Order is. And the rest of us will get a great laugh.

Friday 21 May 2010

What if the Alternative Vote system had been used?

A psephological 'what if' – 'what if' the Alternative Vote system had been used on May 6? Would the result have been significantly different?

AV is basically the well-known PR-STV system, but operated in single-member constituencies. If no candidate is the first preference of a majority of voters, the candidate with the fewest number of first preference rankings is eliminated and that candidate's ballots are redistributed at full value to the remaining candidates according to the next ranking on each ballot. This process is repeated until one candidate obtains a majority of votes among candidates not eliminated.

Obviously this particular 'what if' requires a certain number of assumptions to be made, but luckily Northern Ireland has a rich seam of previous elections – using PR-STV – to mine. So, for simplicity, the approximate transfer behaviour of the 2007 Assembly elections will be used. The TUV, of course, did not exist in 2007, but the transfer behaviour of like-minded unionists will suffice as a proxy.

West of the Bann Sinn Féin and SDLP transfers will go to each other – but only 60% of them – the rest do not transfer. East of the Bann (or, more accurately, in Greater Belfast), SDLP transfers will be split 50/50 between Sinn Féin and Alliance. Unionist transfers will remain within the family, but TUV votes will not all transfer – perhaps only 80% of them. Alliance transfers will be split 50/50 between the SDLPO and the UUP.

In addition, of course, account must be taken for the tactical voting in 2010, where voters had basically one chance to make it count, and may thus have already voted for their 'second, but most realistic, preference', rather than their real first preference (if he/she was perceived to have no chance of being elected).

With these brave assumptions, it is possible to assess the AV winners of each of the 18 seats as follows:
  • West Belfast, Mid Ulster and North Down would be won outright, as their winner received over 50% of the 'First Preferences'.
  • East Belfast: it is likely here that the Alliance first preference vote would not have been so high. The nationalist candidates would be quickly eliminated and their votes transferred to Long, but would make only a marginal difference. Vance's TUV votes would have gone in the opposite direction, adding slightly to both Ringland's and Robinson's total. The question of who would next be eliminated decides this contest. Probably all three – UCUNF, Alliance and DUP – are within a short distance of each other. If, at this point, Ringland is ahead of Long, then she is eliminated and many of her votes transfer to Ringland, giving him the winning margin. But if Long is ahead of Ringland, then it is the UCUNF votes that are transferred – and they may tend to stay in the unionist family, giving the victory – a narrow one – to Robinson.
  • North Belfast: this would be close. All candidates except Dodds and Kelly would be eliminated – giving Dodds the UCUNF transfers, and Kelly some of the Alliance and SDLP transfers. But probably not enough, so Dodds would win.
  • South Belfast: the Green and Alliance transfers would have seen McDonnell over the line without much difficulty.
  • East Antrim: when the nationalists are eliminated a sufficient number of their votes would not transfer, and with a small number of transfers from the TUV Sammy Wilson would easily win.
  • East Derry: Alliance and the TUV would be eliminated first, giving a small boost to the DUP and the SDLP. The SDLP would probably be next to go, giving Sinn Féin a boost, and in much smaller numbers, the UUP. Last to be eliminated, though, is UCUNF, who carry Campbell over the winning line.
  • Fermanagh and South Tyrone; the SDLP transfers would see Michelle Gildernew safely home.
  • Foyle: there was some unionist tactical voting here, but this merely pre-empted the transfers that would have happened under AV. Durkan would get in safely with unionist transfers.
  • Lagan Valley: Donaldson is so close that the non-transferable votes after the elimination of Sinn Féin, the SDLP and the TUV would carry him mathematically over 50%.
  • Newry and Armagh: this offers the interesting possibility of serious unionist tactical voting. Conor Murphy got 42% of the 'first preferences', but it would take 54% of all the other votes to transfer to the SDLP for Bradley would take the seat. The probability of such coordination amongst unionists is fairly small, though, so Murphy would probably retain the seat.
  • North Antrim: nobody was within an ass's roar of Paisley, so he would take the seat with ease.
  • South Antrim: the Alliance votes and some of the SDLP votes would probably transfer to Empey, and there is little chance that Sinn Féin transfers would go to McCrea. McCrea would get some TUV transfers, but there weren't enough TUV votes to change the outcome. Empey would have won.
  • South Down: as in Foyle, Ritchie's 2010 vote was swollen by unionist tactical votes. But these would happen under AV, just one step later.
  • Strangford: although Shannon may not have gotten many transfers, the non-transferrable votes from Sinn Féin and SDLP eliminations would see him safely over 50% of those remaining.
  • Upper Bann: Alliance and SDLP elimination would take Sinn Féin beyond the UCUNF (and maybe DUP) candidates, but the elimination of UCUNF would have brought the DUP's Simpson out ahead.
  • West Tyrone: Sinn Féin would be over 50% with the help of only a few transfers. It would have taken over 92% of all of the other transfers to have gone to the SDLP for them to have beaten Doherty, and that is nigh-on impossible.
So AV would, in fact, have changed relatively little. Peter Robinson probably would have retained his seat, and Empey would have gained one. That, of course, is just for the 2010 election – in the future Northern Ireland's relatively sophisticated electorate may learn to play the system better, and use their transfers more decisively. Perhaps in 2015 the electorate will get a real chance to try.

Licking their wounds

The silence from the TUV since May 6 has been deafening.

The resounding rejection of the party by Northern Ireland's voters appears to have stunned them. They had been mislead by a small number of earlier contests to believe that they would attract about a quarter of the unionist vote – with luck and a split vote this might have even delivered them a seat or two. But the main intention, presumably, was to put in a strong performance that would position them for next year's Assembly elections.

But the paltry 26,300 votes that they received (admittedly in only 10 constituencies), puts them in a pretty poor position.

The TUV's score of the vote in the constituencies that they contested ranged from 3.5% to 16.8%, with an average of 7.3%. This is simply not enough to win seats in the Assembly. On the basis of the Westminster results the TUV would win one Assembly seat – Jim Allister in North Antrim. His hope of forming a block to bring down power-sharing would fail.

In the TUV's 10 contested seats the DUP won 49.2% of the unionist vote. Even UCUNF won 29.6%. The TUV won 11.6% of the unionist vote! Unionists rejected dissident unionism, and voted for participation in the power-sharing Executive.

So where does this leave the TUV?

Politics is ruthless, and failed parties rarely last long. The TUV has failed – twice now. Allister lost his European soap-box in 2009, and his party failed to make much impact in 2010. Will the TUV bother to wait around for its almost inevitable humiliation in 2011? Will it continue to attract members, supporters, or donators?

These are obviously the thoughts that are going through the heads of the TUVs band of loyal supporters. But on their own website there is no evidence of any activity whatsoever, and the TUV's Duracell bunny, David Vance – so willing to blog on anything and everything – seems to have little at all to say on the future of his brand of unionism, apart from trying to fold it into the other brands that he was so gleefully criticising before the election!

Is this the last hurrah for rejectionist unionism, or will it return like a zombie to scare us all again next year, and the year after that, and on and on until it finally gets the point?

Thursday 20 May 2010

On albatrosses and anniversaries

Taoiseach Brian Cowen today spoke at the Annual Conference of the Institute for British Irish Studies, on the subject of history – our shared history, and in particular the decade of centenaries that stretches in front of us.

This blog has, of course, already drawn attention to the decade of centenaries, but the official recognition now given to it by the Taoiseach will probably raise its profile somewhat.

Cowen referred in his speech to the observation, by poet Robert Greacen that "in Ireland, especially in the North, the past hangs round people’s necks like an albatross". Cowen said that following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement "we all – together – began to lift the albatross from our neck" – not in the sense that we have started to forget our history, but in the sense that the albatross is a dead weight that weighs us down.

The albatross reference comes from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (originally The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere), which was written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1797–98. The albatross is hung around the mariner's neck by his angry companions as they blame him for bringing misfortune on them by killing it. Unlike in Cowen's version, the mariner did not lift the bird from his neck – it fell off only when he managed to pray.

Whether the weight of the albatross of history will fall from the neck of the Irish nation is hard to know, and past experience does not bode well. History is a powerful motivator, and raises passions that are otherwise dormant. Cowen may well have been bowing to the inevitable by opening a public debate on the decade of centenaries – they will be remembered anyway – and he may have decided to deal with them proactively.

Several years ago the southern state decided to upgrade its commemoration of the Easter Rising. This move was taken for two reasons; firstly because the end of the IRA's war in the north meant that the southern state could no longer be seen as providing moral succour, and secondly to reclaim 1916 for 'official Ireland' in good time for the centenary in 2016. Perhaps Cowen's move today is being taken for similar reasons – if the state and its institutions are leading the commemorations there is less risk that they will be hijacked by others, including the dissident republicans.

The re-appropriation of history by the state carries with it another opportunity. As Cowen said:

" … the Government has considered these issues in recent weeks and has decided that its approach will be guided by several principles.

We want to see full acknowledgment of the totality of the island’s history and the legitimacy of all the traditions on the island that draw their identity and collective memory from our shared history.

We want the process of commemoration to recognise the totality of the history of the period, and all of the diversity that this encompasses,

We believe that mutual respect should be central to all commemorative events and that historical accuracy should be paramount.

Based on those principles, we will engage in a programme of outreach to all those who are interested in commemorating our history, in all its dimensions, with pride and with respect.

That will, of course, include all of the political parties on the island, as well as leaders of civic society and cultural institutions."
This means that unionism will be faced with a dilemma. Its centenaries will be included amongst those commemorated by the southern state – so how will unionism react? Will it churlishly refuse to join it, insisting on having its own separate ceremonies? Or will it embrace the opportunity to detoxify history?

If it is the former, then by 2022, when the bulk of the centenaries will be behind us, unionism will emerge looking smaller, pettier and more isolated than ever. If, as all indications imply, unionism will be a minority creed and Protestantism a bare majority in the north, the psychological impact may be enormous, and may help to speed the death of unionism as a significant political movement.

But if it is the latter, then by 2022 unionism will have been intimately involved with Irish nationalism, both north and south, for a decade, and will have shown that de facto it is an Irish movement with a past and a future in Ireland. All sorts of new relationships will have been created, and all sorts of barriers broken down. The logic of close north-south cooperation may have been learnt, and who knows where that might lead …

That albatross still has a lot of power to influence our lives.

Alliance Party – Little Ulsterists too

The news that "all 13 Northern Ireland MPs are going to be sitting in the opposition benches" is yet another small proof that Northern Ireland is a ‘place apart’ and not really a full part of the UK.

The surprise in this news lies less in the fact that the SDLP – a sister party of the Labour Party – are formally opposing the Tory-led government, or even that the 'Ulster Nationalist' DUP are remaining in splendid isolation, but in the fact that Naomi Long, the Alliance Party’s fresh MP, is joining the SDLP and the DUP in opposition to the Tory-LibDem coalition.

Because the Alliance Party has always portrayed itself as the sister-party of the LibDems – a fellow member of the ELDR group of liberal parties in the EU. This ‘sister party’ status is mentioned in bold on page 36 of their 2010 manifesto and “we are proud to be members of ELDR (the European Liberal Democratic and Reform party) and of Liberal International, in association with the European and international liberal families”, they say on page 44.

And yet, when their sister party gets closer to real power, and when Alliance could have used their sisterhood to exert some small influence over matters that affect them – they actually turned against their sister party and decided to oppose them! And this despite such opposition being futile, as the coalition has a relatively secure majority.

So why did Alliance do it? Why, when closer to power – admittedly twice-removed – than ever believed possible, did they retreat into pointless isolation, choosing as allies the Little Ulsterists of the DUP?

Why did Alliance not choose instead to proudly announce that they, and only they, of the four Northern Irish parties with MPs, actually could influence policy? Why did they not integrate themselves into the ruling coalition, perhaps even gaining a minor role somewhere?

The alignment of the Alliance MP with the DUP and the SDLP is bizarre and counter to all political logic – bar one thing. That thing is that the Alliance Party too sees itself first and foremost as a 'Northern Irish' party and not as a part of the British political mainstream. By joining with the homophobes and bigots of the DUP in order to extract the 'best deal' possible for Northern Ireland, they show themselves to be regionalists who have no great interest in the wider welfare of the UK. This, of course, is music to the ears of (Irish) nationalists, because it demonstrates loudly and publicly that even the internationalist Alliance Party is primarily a Little Ulster party – 'Ulster Nationalists' in the closet, so to speak – though their choice of Westminster seating arrangements on Tuesday shows that they are starting to come out of the closet.

The majority of opinion in Northern Ireland is now clearly on the side of island-based nationalism – Irish in the case of Sinn Féin and the SDLP, 'Ulsterist' in the case of the DUP and now Alliance. This identification with Ireland (in one or other format) rather than with the UK provides an interesting parallel with the situation over 100 years ago when the Irish MPs returned to Westminster also constituted themselves as an 'Irish Party' – concerned primarily with the interests of their country rather than with those of the UK. That situation now appears to be re-establishing itself in a smaller version, with all 13 sitting MPs grouping themselves into a clear Northern Irish block, even in opposition to their own British sister-parties!

The new Northern Irish block demonstrates that the same separatist tendencies exist, even amongst those who proclaim their 'Britishness' most loudly. It tells the world that Northern Ireland is only a semi-detached part of the UK, interested mainly in the hand-outs. It seems that despite the absence of Sinn Féin, sinn féin remains the mantra of the sitting Northern Irish MPs.

Wednesday 19 May 2010

Clegg’s Great Reform Act

Nick Clegg, Britain’s deputy Prime Minister, today set out his plans for political and electoral reform – what he calls his own Great Reform Act.

How much will they impact on Northern Ireland?

Firstly, it has to be acknowledged that Clegg is but the spare wheel in what is a largely Tory-driven vehicle. Whether he gets his way on this, or on anything much, is yet to be seen. But assuming he does, the following parts of his speech are of interest to the political scene in the north:

"This government will replace the House of Lords with an elected second chamber... Where members are elected by a proportional voting system."
The current House of Lords is a scandalous anachronism – a mixture of inherited privilege and political appointments – that would make even a third-world banana-republic blush. And yet it has been accepted, even respected, in the semi-democratic UK right up to the twenty-first century! Irish nationalists and republicans have, of course, never accepted it – standards of democracy are clearly much higher amongst nationalists. One so-called ‘republican’ – a certain Gerry Fitt – was seduced into membership of the House of Lords, but he was barely able to show his face in Belfast again.

However, an elected House of Lords might be a completely different thing. If it was a democratic body, without the feudal and corrupt overtones of the present body, then nationalists might seek election, just as they do to the present House of Commons. It would, in effect, become another front in Northern Ireland’s on-going constitutional war. The same arguments and contests would take place – who would win more seats, nationalism or unionism, who within each block would prevail, and so on. It would, needless to say, provide another forum for Sinn Féin to boycott.

The ‘proportional voting system’ used to elect its members would obviously have to differ from that of the reformed House of Commons – otherwise the two bodies would simply be mirrors of each other. Might PR-STV in multi-member constituencies find its place here?

"This government will be putting to you, in a referendum, the choice to introduce a new voting system, called the Alternative Vote. Under that new system far more MPs will have to secure support from at least half the people who vote in their constituency... And, hand in hand with that change, there will be new constituency boundaries, reducing the number of MPs overall and creating constituencies that are more equal in size."
These two changes would affect Northern Ireland significantly. Alternative Vote (AV) would mean that in each constituency the seat would be effectively guaranteed to the largest block, so the voting pacts and ‘unity’ candidates that Northern Ireland throws up would become obsolete. All parties would be encouraged to stand everywhere, in the certain knowledge that they would not be ‘splitting the vote’. In a limited number of constituencies, of course, where neither block has a clear majority, the transfers of the ‘others’ (Alliance, etc) will become vital. This means, of course, that the successful candidate would be likely to be that of the more moderate party. South Belfast would continue to return an SDLP member, but South Antrim would no longer return the odious McCrea from the DUP. Tactical voting would take place at the level of the second and subsequent preferences, so the first-preference votes would more closely show the ‘real’ strengths of each party.

The overall impact of AV would not be great, except in the few marginal seats. The party that would suffer most from it would probably be the DUP (who would lose South Antrim, and probably Upper Bann). The beneficiaries would be the UUP and the SDLP, though whether either would gain more than one seat would depend on circumstances.

The second part of Clegg’s plan for the House of Commons is a reduction in the number of seats, and that is very interesting. He provided no details on the scale of the reduction, though Cameron had earlier implied reductions that would leave Northern Ireland with about 15 seats. How they are configured is, of course, the key issue. Some seats, now marginal (North and South Belfast, for instance), could become safer for one or the other side. Others, now safe, could become marginal! The devil will be in the detail.

One further proposal in Clegg’s speech is also interesting. He said that:

"I have already commissioned work on introducing the power of recall. If your MP is corrupt, you will be able to sack them. You will need the support of 10% of people living in the constituency... And your MP will have had to have been found guilty of serious wrongdoing..."
Now while he refers to ‘serious wrongdoing’, it would not be a stretch to include some form of penalisation for abstentionism in this context. If Clegg’s Great Reform Act decides to make the refusal to take a seat a ‘serious wrongdoing’, then the angry unionist voters – in all cases at least 10% – in the seats (now 5, perhaps fewer in future if the number of seats is reduced) held by Sinn Féin could instigate a ‘recall’ of the Sinn Féin member. This would certainly stir up a hornets nest.

Clegg’s plans are, of course, very preliminary, and there's many a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip. This is an issue – or series of issues – to watch closely.

Tuesday 18 May 2010

The Greening of South Belfast

In the past South Belfast was a safe unionist seat. It contained areas inhabited by the comfortable Protestant middle class, as well as rougher worker class – but still mainly Protestant – areas. Small pockets of Catholics and nationalists existed, but were marginal.

However, a combination of free education and improving equality led to increasing numbers of middle-class Catholics – and many of them also wanted to live in the nicer areas off the Lisburn Road, the Malone Road, or in Stranmillis. Queens graduates, already familiar with the Holy Land from their student days, perhaps sought to remain in the area if they found jobs in Belfast. Little by little the Catholic proportion of the population in South Belfast grew.

In the 2001 Census, the statistics on Community Background (religion or religion brought up in) showed the scale of the Catholic influx. Of those aged over 75, around 80% were Protestant – however amongst lower age groups the proportion of Catholics increased until, around the age of 40, it starts to equal or exceed that of Protestants. Amongst the student-age population the Catholic proportion exceeds that of Protestants, but many of these are transient residents of the constituency.

Tellingly, amongst the children, Catholics exceed Protestants at the youngest ages – indicating an increased tendency amongst young Catholics to settle in the area. The proportion claiming no religion also increases at these youngest ages, and we will have to wait until after the next census to try to understand which religion (if any) these children are being brought up in.

This increase in the Catholic proportion of South Belfast's population had its inevitable impact on the politics of the constituency. Forty years ago – when those over-75s were in their thirties – South Belfast was over 70% unionist. This is entirely consistent with the age profile of those aged over 50 in the graph above – only these would have been in the electorate in 1970. But as time passed, the decreasing Protestant proportion, and the increasing Catholic proportion, meant that the unionist proportion of the vote declined, and the nationalist proportion increased:

The spike in 1986, of course, represents the anti-Anglo-Irish Agreement by-elections, which were boycotted by many nationalists, so are not truly representative. Otherwise the trend in the unionist proportion is almost uniformly downward. The nationalist trend is generally upward – creeping closer and closer to the unionist proportion until May 6 2010, when the nationalist vote – for the first time ever in South Belfast – exceeded the unionist vote (by 16 votes).

The election results shown in the graph above are for the constituency as it was configured at the times of the elections – boundary revisions mean that it is not always the same area, but the bulk of the constituency has remained largely unchanged.

In 2005, for the first time ever, South Belfast was won by a nationalist candidate – the SDLP's Alasdair McDonnell. Unionism, accustomed to 'owning' South Belfast, contorted itself in the hope of wresting it back in 2010, but ultimately failed when McDonnell was the only nationalist candidate.

There is little reason to expect a freezing, still less a reversal, of the greening of South Belfast. The older age-groups remain predominantly Protestant, and as they die they will be replaced in the electorate by a more mixed group. A majority of Northern Ireland's students, and thus its graduates, are Catholic and many will probably continue to settle in South Belfast.

Obviously turn-out can influence the outcome of future elections – if unionist turn-out is higher than nationalist turn-out they may again win a majority of the vote – but this appears to be a declining possibility. A 'unionist unity' candidate may still win South Belfast at the next Westminster election, unless the Sinn Féin abstention becomes a tradition. Finally, if the number of Westminster seats in Northern Ireland is reduced, this will obviously have an impact on South Belfast, perhaps leading to an entirely different constituency with more Protestant-majority districts, and thus a new unionist majority. But this is early days for such speculations.

At present, and in its current shape, South Belfast is a constituency that is visibly greening.

Monday 17 May 2010

Unionist unity proves unionism is hypocritical

The setbacks that unionism suffered in the recent Westminster elections (e.g. the failure of all three unionist party leaders to win a seat, and the continued decline in the unionist share of the vote) have given rise to increasingly open calls for ‘unionist unity’. Such calls are hardly new, of course – the Hatfield House talks that cost the UUP/Tory non-merger its Castle-Catholic members, and the Rodney Connor embarrassment, were recent attempts to forge some sort of ‘unionist front'.

The May 6 Massacre, however, has given rise to calls for unity even from the TUV – a sure sign of worry on the orange side of Northern Ireland’s divided political landscape.

Surely unionism considers Northern Ireland to be ‘part of the UK’, and thus subject to the ebb and flow of UK politics? Why should any party in Northern Ireland feel the need to call itself ‘unionist’? Surely a ‘British’ person in Northern Ireland would vote for his or her preferred political creed, and thus play a part in the political life of their country? Are ‘British’ people in Northern Ireland not socialists, liberals, greens or fascists just as in Britain? Do these creeds not oppose – even detest – each other?

The very fact that unionism exists is proof that Northern Ireland is not ‘British’. If unionists think that the UK is the best future for Northern Ireland, then there must be an ideological reason for this – either because it offers a superior social welfare system (but it doesn’t) or because it offers a better framework for entrepreneurship (but it doesn’t), or for some other objective reason. The complete absence of any ideological foundation for unionism – other than anti-Irish bigotry – is what allows unionists of all classes, ages and socio-economic backgrounds to come together.

If unionists were consistent to their ‘British’ beliefs there would be, at least, a ‘Unionist Social Democratic’ party, and a ‘Unionist Christian Democratic’ party. In fact, there is none of the first, and three of the second! But in truth, if unionists were consistent there would be no ‘unionist’ in the title of any of their parties – there would be parties based on economics, environmentalism or class. However, there aren’t. And the call for ‘unionist unity’ shows that unionists are actually thinking in the opposite direction!

A ‘unionist unity’ party can only be a counter-party to non-unionism (or anti-unionism). It cannot be an answer to socialism, capitalism, pollution or rural deprivation. Its only purpose is to thwart the desires of those who aspire to an Irish national identity – and yet the only time when such an identity could actually threaten the constitutional position of Northern Ireland is in a border poll. So the existence of unionism in normal, everyday politics is a nonsense – worse, it represents a narrow negative reactionary attitude, the precise antithesis of the ‘Britishness’ that unionism claims to belong to.

And while unionist parties (in the plural) are antithetical to ‘Britishness’, a single unified unionist party simply proves beyond any doubt that unionists are motivated only by negativity. Trades unionists, greens, middle-class property-owners, company directors, farmers and all the rest have no natural political commonality – if they combine in one single ‘unionist’ party – in the absence of any imminent border poll – they are simply proving the religious basis of unionism.

And, of course, as unionists would claim, religion is not what makes them unionists. How, then, can they explain the broad-based, but almost exclusively Protestant, nature of their proposed unionist unity project?

Any unionist who calls for, or supports, ‘unionist unity’ is no civic unionist, but rather a tribal, probably sectarian, unionist. Yet so many are flocking to the banner of unity …

Unionism can only become ‘British’ by losing its obsession with ‘the union’ – and by, for all extents and purposes, short of a border poll, ceasing to call themselves ‘unionist’. The continued fetish with the British flag, with attaching the adjective ‘unionist’ to anything that isn’t Teflon-coated, and the denial of valid political divisions, all prove time and time again that ‘unionism’ is merely a form of ethno-religious nationalism. As such it is limited to the adherents of a shrinking tribe, and will be overtaken by ‘the other’ tribe, the one that is growing faster and already has more adherents amongst the young.

Unionism can unite to its heart’s content – but as long as it remains a tribal-religious movement it is vulnerable to demographic (and not just democratic) defeat. ‘Unity’ simply hastens the day of its ultimate defeat.

Going, going, …

The recent Westminster election saw the unionist share of the vote fall again – it achieved 50.5%, equal to its lowest score in a Westminster election ever. The graph below shows the combined unionist proportion of the vote in all Westminster elections since the end of the old Stormont regime:

Given that Protestants in Northern Ireland – unionism's main supporters – have an age profile that is older than that of Catholics, there can be little doubt that the downward trend will continue, probably bringing unionism below 50% in the next Westminster elections (unless the current British government crashes sooner than foreseen). Leaving aside the wobble in the 1992-1997 elections the graph is almost perfectly smooth – and downward.