Monday 7 June 2010

Swedenise us!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UUP selecting Assembly candidates

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

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

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

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

Martin Mansergh's mysterious message

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday 6 June 2010

2009 Young Life and Times Survey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Republican illusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 4 June 2010

Yes, I did … No, you didn’t …

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

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

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

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

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

A Unionist Labour Party?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 3 June 2010

The PUP – saints and scholars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How the TUV gifted victory to Gildernew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 'west' – 40 years a-greening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fermanagh questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The end of the PUP

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

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

Purvis will remain as an independent MLA for East Belfast.

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

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

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

Wednesday 2 June 2010

Curious and curiouser

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

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

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

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

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

The TUV is not gone away yet

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

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

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

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

A dearth of defections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 1 June 2010

All-island or all-Ireland?

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

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

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

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

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