Sunday 31 January 2010

Hanging in there

Today’s big news in UK politics is that the Tory lead in the polls has been cut so much that the outcome of the Westminster election, if held now, would probably be a hung parliament. It seems the Tory nightmare is coming to pass.

Over the past few weeks the polls have gradually whittled down the expected Tory lead:

ComRes show polls narrowing again … Ipsos MORI show lead Tory narrowing to 8 … YouGov show Tory lead cut to 7 points

And now this: Hung Parliament. Conservatives short by 3

Of course, the way the British look at these things, the 18 Northern Irish seats are all just put under a heading of ‘other others’ (the real British others – SNP, Plaid Cymru, Greens, Respect, etc – are just ‘others’. Northern Ireland is, of course, beyond the pale), and are not counted towards the Tories total.

For the English Tories this cold news must be focussing their thoughts on the problems they are facing in Northern Ireland. If only they could get a guarantee of 10 or more seats, then they’d be home and dry. But the UUP, re-dressed as UCUNF, seem to be screwing up royally, and their only MP seems determined not to support the Tories.

The Tories have three targets now in Northern Ireland:

  1. Get rid of Sylvia Hermon – but make it look ‘accidental’, i.e. it must be done out of plain sight. Expect some unpleasantness, therefore – perhaps an unsavoury revelation, some publicity concerning her expenses, or something of a personal nature. They won’t find a toy-boy like Iris Robinson’s, but they are busy looking under every stone at present.
  2. Reinforce UCUNF – this is going to be hard because the greater part of it comprises the tired old bigots of the old UUP. The ‘new’ blood has, so far, been conspicuous by its absence. How can they re-package the same old shoddy goods in shiny new wrapping?
  3. Cuddle up to the DUP – this, of course, has been happening already for a while, but in secret. Perhaps now it will happen more overtly. If the DUP retain the bulk of their seats, then they will be far better allies in Westminster than the poor old UUP, who may end up with no seats at all! But the DUP has to lose its ‘un-British’ image – dumping Iris was a good first step, but more may be needed. Expect to see some public pronouncements from the DUP that come closer to supporting actual British values, and not the odd values that many unionists mistakenly believe to be British. The DUP will then become more palatable to the English Tories – at least until they are no longer needed (then they’ll be dumped or betrayed again). Behind the scenes, of course, this scenario requires the Tories to promise satisfaction to the DUP – so the current ‘talks’ may be made to fail, in order that the Tories can then impose their pro-DUP solution after May if the support of the DUP gets them into power.

Tomorrow will be interesting. If the Tories weigh up today’s poll results and decide that they really really need the DUP, then by tomorrow morning the DUP may go into the reconvened talks with big smiles on their faces, believing themselves to be in a win-win situation. Watch tomorrow’s body language for hints of what may even now be happening behind closed doors.

Friday 29 January 2010

Dreary steeples again

It just gets worse and worse for the unionists and their botched attempts at 'unity':

"Conservative Northern Ireland spokesman Owen Paterson has said he is seeking an urgent meeting with Ulster Unionist leader Sir Reg Empey. It follows revelations the Orange Order convened secret unity talks between the DUP and UUP in early December.

The parties discussed the possibility of electoral pacts and forming a unionist bloc at Stormont. However, the talks did not involve the Tories, the Ulster Unionist Party's current election partner.

Mr Paterson said he knew nothing about the meeting which was exposed by the BBC's Hearts and Minds, and would not comment any further until he had talked with Sir Reg."
The BBC goes on to say that:

"Some in Belfast think that the Conservative-UUP pact is now effectively dead, and that Conservative leader David Cameron will be forced to announce its demise within the next few days."
Jeffrey Peel, who was always vocally opposed to the UCUNF project commented that:

"… the Conservative UUP relationship could not survive this. Sir Reg's words about establishing non-sectarian politics here ring very hollow indeed when, in the course of supposedly doing a deal with the Conservatives, he was having tri-partite meetings with the Orange Order and DUP."
The question in all this is who really was the fool. Were the UUP foolish to think that the Tories really cared about them, as opposed to just about gaining power in London, or were the Tories foolish to think that the UUP had actually changed? At the time of the UCUNF non-merger there were many voices raised in warning, but none were heeded. Now it seems that the dreary steeples are emerging once again.

'Unionist unity' emphasises lack of unionist commitment

The recent hullabaloo over the 'unionist unity' talks hosted by the English Tories, and the later revelation of earlier 'unionist unity' talks hosted by the Orange Order has been a little pointless and directionless. Nationalists have an uneasy feeling about these talks but are not able to pin down precisely why. Unionists respond by saying that talks between members of the same political philosophy are hardly a surprise.

Malachi O'Doherty, writing in the Belfast Telegraph, however has managed to put his finger on the issue, and his article makes uncomfortable reading:

"… Sinn Fein, which no doubt would relish topping the poll, makes the argument that it shouldn't really matter whether the First Minister is a nationalist or a unionist. Their interpretation is that the First and Deputy First Ministers hold equal positions.

For unionists, the difference between the two positions is so important that, apparently, practically every issue which divides the DUP and the Ulster Unionist Party can be compromised to prevent Sinn Fein appointing a First Minister in Northern Ireland.

So, what does this say about unionism?

Well, for a start it says that neither unionist party accepts that the First and Deputy First Ministers are equal. There is only one of those positions which either main unionist party thinks a unionist should fill.

By positioning themselves to form an alliance to prevent Sinn Fein taking the First Ministry, both unionist parties are attempting to refute the Sinn Fein understanding that there is currently a requirement on unionism to treat republicans as equals.

If the unionists are seriously saying that they could not bear to serve under a Sinn Fein First Minister, duly elected, under agreements which they have assented to, then there are disturbing implications that follow from that.

The first of these is that unionist assent to the Good Friday Agreement and the St Andrews Agreement are qualified; they are conditional on the maintenance of a unionist majority."

Not only does the unionist determination to retain the symbolic First Minster position say a lot about the future – it also shouts that unionists have never, in the on-off history of the institutions, truly seen Martin McGuinness as co-equal. It post facto colours the whole commitment of unionism to the power-sharing arrangements – implying a completely conditional and incomplete participation by unionism.

There is more at stake in the current 'crisis' than merely the transfer of policing and justice, and the careless assumption that once P+J are transferred 'devolution' will be complete is seen to be very far short of the reality.

Wednesday 27 January 2010

TUV announces its target seats

The TUV has announced that its target seats in the upcoming Westminster election are North Antrim and East Belfast.

"As the Westminster election approaches, TUV is stepping up its preparations and signalling that among its key targets will be the seat of the First Minister in East Belfast. ... TUV is indicating that in both North Antrim and East Belfast it will be going toe to toe with the DUP in its former heartlands."
That does not exclude the possibility of the TUV fighting other seats, but it is unlikely that they would fight any seat where a split unionist vote would almost certainly return a nationalist.

The TUV is thus trying to decapitate the DUP by defeating its present and past leaders. If Ian Paisley senior stands again in North Antrim he would probably win, but the size of the TUV bite into his majority may humiliate him. If he does not stand, then the seat is unpredictable.

East Belfast is likely to be a three horse race. No-one seriously expects the TUV to win it, or even to come close, but by eating into the DUP's majority the TUV could bring the seat into play – if UCUNF ever get their act together and field a reasonable candidate they have a good chance. Even Alliance are talking up their chances – small though they are; coming second in a multi-seat STV election in 2007 does not translate into a similar feat in a single-member FPTP election.

Tuesday 26 January 2010

Parsley, not sage

Today’s news, that “two former Conservative candidates who withdrew their nominations have said it was partly because of a possible deal between the Ulster Unionists and DUP” has made a few people look foolish.

Not least was the appalling Ian Parsley, the Tory’s new enfant terrible in Northern Ireland. He is on record as insisting that:

“[McCann, Davidson and Nelson] stated their intention to withdraw as prospective candidates, but they were content to remain as party members – nothing was ever mentioned about it having anything to do with talks with Unionist parties.

… the facts of the matter are quite simple. Three nominees stated their intention to withdraw on the basis that they could not wait around indefinitely for the selection process (which has indeed taken longer than intended) to be completed - a process entered into by all of us with no guarantees.”
Well, someone appears not to be telling the whole truth. Would a casual observer believe either,

(a) three people who publicly withdraw their nominations on grounds of principle, with no possibility of personal gain, or,

(b) one person who was elected (with few personal votes) to local office on the coat-trails of a popular politician, stood as a European Parliament candidate for one party (at considerable cost to them), and then promptly defected to an opposing party, and refused to resign his local seat?

Parsley by name, but not sage by nature!

North Down gets interesting

"I may be left with no other option than to run as an independent candidate", said Sylvia Hermon in today's Irish News [no link].

So another front opens in the war of attrition against the UCUNF. Speculation has been growing over what Hermon's intentions were – to bend the knee to the Tory Party non-merger, to stand down, or to fail to be selected as the 'joint' candidate for North Down.

It now seems that she has decided that the latter option is the most likely. She has never hidden her dislike of the Tories, and of the UUP's 'arrangement' with them. Such a candidate could never have been acceptable to the joint selection committee that is vetting all UCUNF candidates – let alone to the two party leaders who have the final say.

Faced with de-selection, Hermon could have slunk away into obscurity. But it seems, from today's interview, that she intends to fight for her seat – and to fight as an independent.

Given North Down's record of electing mavericks, her chances have to be good. The fact that her opponent will probably be the appalling Ian Parsley for the Tories, and the DUP, the battle will be at least a three-way fight. It is always hard to judge how it might turn out, especially in a 'first-past-the-post' election, but if Hermon pulls it off and retains her seat it will be a major humiliation for the UUP and UCUNF, and possibly a serious problem for the English Tories if the outcome of the Westminster election is a close balance.

Gordon Brown's hung parliament

All of the political commentary recently about the Tory Party's wooing of the two main unionist parties has dwelt on the possibility that the Tories might need the extra support in the British parliament in the event of a hung parliament.

But a hung parliament works two ways.

By definition it implies that no party has a majority of the seats, and any party that wishes to form the next government must seek additional support elsewhere. Hence the Tories increasing desperation to hoover up the unionist seats.

But the same can work for Gordon Brown too.

If the Tories do not have a majority then Labour will also have an opportunity to try to cobble together a coalition – either formal or informal – to return to power. Little is said of the smaller British parties; the Liberal Democrats, the SNP and Plaid Cymru, but all of them would have a preference for a Labour government over a Tory one. The Tories calculation is, no doubt, based upon an assumption of Labour being able to count on the support of all three – with the precise balance being dependent upon the small number of unionist seats.

At present the unionist seats are divided between the UUP (one) and the DUP (nine). The UUP's seat is held by the anti-Tory Sylvia Hermon, thereby adding to the Tories problems. Only if one of two things happen can they be assured of the extra support from Northern Ireland.

Firstly, the UUP (rebranded as UCUNF) has to win some extra seats. This is possible, even likely, but the number may be limited to one or two.

Secondly, the DUP has to lend the Tories its support. If the DUP retains most (or all) of its nine seats, then it is the DUP, and not the Tories allies in the UUP, who matter.

And the DUP will matter to Gordon Brown just as much as to David Cameron.

If Brown can 'win over' the DUP, and they retain most of their seats, this could be enough to deny the Tories their majority, and perhaps even deliver one to Labour.

So, in the current 'last-chance-saloon' negotiations going on in Belfast, there must be a temptation for Gordon Brown to give the DUP something – not to save Stormont, but to save Gordon. Antagonising the DUP may end his inglorious reign – and for nothing.

A British prime minister in a position of strength can be a neutral arbiter, but a British prime minister in a position of weakness, coming up to a tight election, cannot be neutral. Sinn Féin should be very conscious of this. Brown may be physically in the room, but mentally he is in May 7th, waking up to the post-election parliamentary arithmetic.

Liam Clarke's certainty

How strange that a journalist like Liam Clarke – so well informed about Northern Irish politics – can be so wrong about Northern Irish demographics.

In today's News Letter he writes;

"Under the Good Friday Agreement, the status of Northern Ireland can only be decided by referendum. On all available projections, there is no chance of people born into Catholic/nationalist families outnumbering those born into Protestant/unionist families in any of our lifetimes."
Unless his readership is entirely composed of pensioners (doubtful) the "available projections" actually show that the 'Catholic/nationalist' proportion of the population will outnumber the 'Protestant/unionist' proportion sometime within the next 20 years. This blog has demonstrated that on numerous occasions – based on the schools census, the labour force, and the census.

But Clarke has a gallery to play to, so it is understandable that he panders to their fears. However, unionism would do itself a much greater service if it started to actually take seriously the demographic realities rather than denying them.

Ironically Clarke's article is an inadvertent admission of the demographic elephant in the living room. Clarke regrets that the two largest unionist parties are flirting with a merger, as:

"The idea of unionist unity may seem, on the surface, like the surest way of guaranteeing the Union, but it may have the opposite effect, bringing the Union with Britain into constant doubt at every election."

The reason why the two unionist parties are flirting with marriage is precisely because the growing numerical strength of nationalism (helped, it must be said, by Jim Allister's TUV) threatens the unionist monopoly of the First Ministership. The unionist parties can clearly see writing on the wall – so why can't Clarke? If the 'Protestant/unionist' community was so certain of its 'perpetual majority' then, of course, it would not feel the need to rally behind unionist parties at all, let alone a single unionist party. It is because they know that Northern Irish religious demographics is getting closer to the tipping point that they are retreating into the tribal laager.

Monday 25 January 2010

Tory lead shrinking

With probably only three months (and a bit) to go until the Westminster election, and with their Northern Ireland strategy appearing to be heading towards a crash, the Tories awoke yesterday to find that they had sunk in the polls.

It seems that the ComRes poll yesterday gave 'topline' figures of Tory 38% (-4), Labour 29% (no change), and Lib Dem 19% (no change). That represents a sharp drop in Conservative support since ComRes’s last poll.

The ComRes poll would translate into a Tory majority of around 20 seats in the British parliament – less than half what the polls were estimating only last week. If their support continues to ebb away like this they may really come to regret the mess they have made (so far) of their foray into Northern Ireland.

Three months is, of course, a long time in politics, but nonetheless the Tories must be starting to get worried. A very obvious source of seats – 10 at least – could be Northern Ireland, if they can persuade both the UUP and the DUP to support them. But for this to happen, they will have to abandon their pretence of creating some sort of 'civic unionist' coalition and use the short time to cobble together a quick-and-dirty tribal coalition.

Short-term gain, but long-term loss – such is the way of politics. Unionists would be foolish to trust the Tory party with their long-term interests.

Sunday 24 January 2010

Catholic Tories – two down

This blog has been, on occasion, somewhat dismissive of the claims that there are a significant number of ‘Catholic unionists’. Election results tend to mirror religious demographics in most areas, so if there are any ‘Catholic unionists’ they are either very few in number, or balanced by an equivalent number of Protestant nationalists.

But last year the Tory party appeared to have drawn not one but two rabbits out of its hat – Peter McCann and Sheila Davidson, both Catholics, were selected as potential Tory candidates in the upcoming Westminster election.

But some time last week both appear to have resigned from the Tory party over the secret unionist-unity talks held in England a week ago, and hosted by the Tory party. As the Observer newspaper put it:

“Sources in the Northern Ireland Conservatives also confirmed that three prospective Westminster candidates, including former Top Gear producer Peter McCann, have resigned in protest over deepening Tory ties with the two main unionist parties.

One source told the Observer that McCann and others had "wanted to vomit" when they were given details of talks between Paterson and senior Ulster Unionists and Democratic Unionists in south-west England last weekend. A subsequent meeting between Paterson and three potential Tory candidates, including McCann, PR expert Sheila Davidson and Deirdre Nelson, failed to quell their anger about the Conservatives' talks with the two main unionist parties.

One source close to the trio said: "This meeting confirmed our fears that the party leadership is preparing to agree to a sectarian DUP-UUP carve-up of constituencies. Peter and others resigned on a matter of principle, that principle being a wholly secular, inclusive pro-union politics untainted by sectarianism.”
Two of the three are, of course, the two ‘Catholics’ that the Tories so smugly paraded before the public last year. Nelson despite her nice Gaelic forename is a Protestant.

So where does that leave the Tories ‘non-sectarian’ project?

Well, for a start, they are now Catholic-less, and have publicly entered into ‘secret’ talks with the sectarian DUP. So their non-sectarian credentials are shot to bits.

Secondly, they are now candidate-less in three constituencies; South Belfast (McCann), Lagan Valley Davidson) and East Belfast (Nelson). New candidates will be needed, and quickly. The election is getting very close, and the Tories lack recognisable candidates. If they have no-one, then the candidacies in these constituencies must go, by default, to the UUP according to the UCUNF logic. If UCUNF has few, if any, Tory candidates then it becomes just what many suspected – a repackaged UUP.

UCUNF – both the Tories and the UUP – are seriously behind schedule in terms of candidate selection. Candidates have to be publicised and given a ‘persona’ in time for the election. A last-minute selection would be a disaster unless they can find people with existing voter recognition. So far they haven’t succeeded, and time is running out.

The whole UCUNF project is threatened by this development. How strange that the Tories Owen Paterson – apparently so well informed on Northern Ireland – could have misjudged the opinion of his own party members so badly. If this turns out to be the straw that denies Cameron his majority, then Paterson’s days must be numbered.

May 6

In a slip worthy of a sit-com, the British Minister of Defence has told Sky News that the public will "rue the day if they wind up with a Conservative government... after the 6 May".


Presumably a cabinet minister will know the intentions of his party and government, so Mr Ainsworth’s comments have to be taken seriously.

May 6 has been the bookies favourite for a while, but it is interesting to hear someone in a position to know confirming it.

If May 6 is the date of the Westminster election, then Gordon Brown should dissolve the current parliament on Monday April 12.

Saturday 23 January 2010

St Andrews is the bottom line

After the meeting of the Sinn Féin Ard Chomhairle Gerry Adams released a statement setting out what his party’s position is.

It is interesting that the statement is released in the name of Adams himself, and not the Ard Chomhairle or the party.

“Statement from Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams MP, MLA:

The Ard Chomhairle has been meeting throughout the day and Martin McGuinness and I have been briefing colleagues on the detail of the recent discussions with the DUP.

It would have been our hope when the Ard Comhairle was originally put back two weeks ago that we would have had something positive in terms of a resolution of current difficulties to put to this meeting.

Unfortunately, we are not in that position despite my very firm view that with the necessary political will all of these matters could and should have been sorted out before now.

Within three months of the St Andrews Agreement, Sinn Féin had held an Ard Fheis on policing and had fulfilled our obligations.

That was three years ago and we are waiting on the DUP to honour theirs.

The failure thus far by the DUP to honour this St Andrews obligation is symptomatic of a much bigger problem - their refusal to work partnership government, and in particular to work the office of OFM/dFM properly.

The only agreement worth reaching is one which deals with this core issue. The political institutions can work and can deliver - but only if they function on the basis they were established. They are not sustainable otherwise.

Equality and partnership are central to all of this.

Our negotiating team has been given a very specific brief. Martin McGuinness will be seeking an urgent meeting with Peter Robinson.

This will be a critical and defining engagement.

The two Governments have been in touch with us last night.

The Governments, who are the guarantors of the St Andrews and Good Friday Agreements, are also in default in outstanding issues. Particularly equality issues like Irish language rights and North/South structures.

The governments need to set a date for transfer now.

Martin spoke to the British Prime Minister and to a senior official in the Taoiseach's Department. But let me say, the governments are not referees in this; they are guarantors with responsibilities and obligations.

We will of course meet them but it is in the context of them coming forward with a date.

Much of the commentary around this issue has been characterised by talk of Sinn Féin collapsing, or forcing an election. This is not about Sinn Féin hyping things up.

This is not a game of poker. If the institutions are not working and not delivering - then they become pointless and unsustainable.

What we are about is fixing the problems and returning to the basis upon which these institutions were established - Good Friday Agreement and St Andrews Agreement.

If that is not possible then no self respecting public representative or political party would want to be part of what would be nothing less than a charade.”

Several points stand out:

"Martin McGuinness will be seeking an urgent meeting with Peter Robinson. This will be a critical and defining engagement."

So, after all the talks, the meetings, and the hype, there will be yet another meeting. But this one, apparently really is the last one. Apparently.

"If the institutions are not working and not delivering - then they become pointless and unsustainable."

So collapse really is the threat.

"What we are about is fixing the problems and returning to the basis upon which these institutions were established - Good Friday Agreement and St Andrews Agreement."

But there is a solution – the full implementation of the GFA and St Andrews. Nothing less.

Adams statement is probably as clear an exposition of Sinn Féin’s position as the public is going to see for a while. If the other parties and the governments know more, it is unlikely to be released – and, given the clarity of Adams words, it is unlikely to be very different.

So it seems to be back to the last-chance saloon, with Sinn Féin batting the ball very clearly back to the unionists and the governments. If they chose to ignore it, the game will be over fairly soon. Whether the governments are prepared to waste yet more time and effort on trying to re-establish the institutions is as yet unknown, but it is likely that they would not, and that Northern Ireland could return to the deep-freeze of direct rule for another decade. If that happens, the next attempt to restore local democracy will be driven by quite different political and demographic realities, and will inevitably be greener than today’s attempt. The unionists may well then wish that they had taken the chances they were offered in 2010, just as in 1998 many wished they had not let Sunningdale slip away.

Friday 22 January 2010

DUP-UUP merger?

Political developments are happening so fast and in such unexpected directions at the moment that nothing should surprise us. But a story on the RTÉ website is definitely unexpected.

The story says that:

“DUP leader Peter Robinson has raised the possibility of his party merging with the Ulster Unionists to prevent Sinn Féin being entitled to the First Minister role in a future Northern Ireland executive.”

A full-scale merger of the two main unionist parties would change northern politics more than anything seen for a generation. Whether the RTÉ story is correct, or whether it is an exaggeration of the speculative reasons behind the DUP-UUP-Tory ‘secret talks’ is hard to say. No other news outlet appears to be running with the story.

Policing and justice endgame (part 2)

Talks on justice powers with DUP over says Sinn Fein, the BBC has just announced.

Where now? Well, the first step comes tomorrow, when the Sinn Féin Ard Chomhairle meets to discuss the issue. So far the party is not making warlike noises – Gerry Adams has said that the "game was up, but not over".

But Sinn Féin faces a relatively difficult choice. The secret meeting between the English Tories, the UUP and the DUP last weekend was ostensibly about future arrangements in the Assembly (though this blog remains cynical about other items that may have been discussed). The timing of the pan-unionist meeting is strange, since the next Assembly election is not for over a year – unless some of the participants knew that there was little or no chance of agreement on the transfer of policing and justice, and that therefore an early Assembly election was quite likely.

Should Sinn Féin pull the plug on the current Assembly? There are arguments in favour of doing so: the DUP is reeling from the Iris Robinson scandal, the UUP and Tories are distracted by the upcoming Westminster elections, the SDLP is distracted by its leadership contest and, more strategically, it would not allow the pan-unionist grouping time to create an umbrella vehicle to out-number Sinn Féin in the Assembly and thus retain the symbolic First Ministership.

But arguments against pulling the plug are also strong: it would, of course, achieve nothing. It wouldn't bring P+J any closer, nor would it advance the nationalist cause in any way. On the contrary, it may allow dissident republicans to claim that Sinn Féin was failing its voters, and thus to take a share of the nationalist vote.

Having cried wolf so many times, Sinn Féin needs to show that there really is something behind its warnings. As this blog has argued before, this does not need to involve a collapse of the institutions or a new Assembly election – it could involve a phased slow-down of all Executive business, especially that of importance to unionists. In effect the result would be institutional collapse, but in slow-motion, thereby allowing the rest of the watching world to see and judge where the blame should lie.

We should see more clearly how things will shape up by Sunday.

NI not British, says TUV

Jim Allister's TUV has inadvertently admitted that it doesn't actually consider Northern Ireland or its inhabitants to be British. The slip-up (Freudian?) is in their newly-released 'Fact Sheet' on policing and justice:

"As some Unionists prepare to gift Sinn Fein their key strategic demand of ending British control of policing and justice".

So, to the TUV, the Executive is not British, David Ford (if it is he) is not British … does Allister even see himself as British?

Words that speak for themselves, indeed!

Fishy business from the Tories

Yesterday a Tory spokesman said that the purpose of the Hatfield House talks between the Tories, the UUP and the DUP was to explore how "some of the political instabilities at Stormont" could be overcome, and "to avoid a situation in which we might potentially, should we win the election, inherit a collapsed Assembly and direct rule".

"So far as the Westminster election is concerned, the only deal is the current deal between the Conservatives and the Ulster Unionists", the spokesman said; "we will be putting up 18 Conservative and unionist candidates at the next election, offering the people of Northern Ireland national politics and the chance to vote for modern, centre-right inclusive candidates".

Unless the Tories intend to show themselves up as liars, that, then, is that. No pact with the DUP for the Westminster elections. The ball is back in the DUP's court, in this game of hard-ball.

The DUP has been playing hard and offering up hostages to fortune. They have been firm is asserting their intention to stand in seats where they have recently out-polled the UUP – including South Belfast and Fermanagh and South Tyrone – while always carefully leaving the door slightly open to a pact with the UUP. But if it turns out that the 'pact' simply involves the DUP standing aside in South Belfast and Fermanagh and South Tyrone, with no quid pro quo in, for example, North Belfast, then the DUP will look humiliated. As so often, the DUP has been pushed into a corner and there is no obvious way out. Today's Belfast Telegraph claims that the DUP will stand aside - but 'in return for UUP support for the DUP over any eventual package on policing and justice which is, however, by no means certain'. It seems a very small return for a serious set-back.

Yet the Tories, haunted by the spectre of a hung parliament, are loath to surrender any potential seats – the UUP is in the bag, and the DUP's support can probably be easily bought – however if the 'target' seats remain in nationalist hands they are out of the Tories grasp. So, from a Tory point of view, any arrangement that delivers the target seats to any unionist party is beneficial. But no deal risks the seats remaining in nationalist hands. A true dilemma, and one that, no doubt, is being worked on despite the Tory assertions of no deal with the DUP!

The Tories do admit that the Assembly was on the agenda of their secret meeting. Here the speculation is that the goal is thwarting Sinn Féin's chances of becoming the largest party, and thus nominating Martin McGuinness as First Minister. There is another year before the Assembly elections (if there is no collapse or resignation before then), so plenty of time to come to an arrangement. Presumably a Tory party that has swept back into power in 2010 would be in a very powerful bargaining position in the run-up to the Assembly elections, and would be capable of pushing the DUP in the direction of a pact.

Why then, have these secret talks been taking place now, so far from the Assembly election, and yet so near to the Westminster election?

Something does not add up.

Owen Paterson, likely to be the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland after June 2010, would then be in a very powerful position, and would have a full year to exercise it. Yet he apparently started his 'unionist realignment' talks now, before he has any leverage at all? After June, if there is a hung parliament it may be the DUP that has the leverage, so any deal made now would be up for serious renegotiation. The whole thing has a fishy, and increasingly implausible ring to it.

Thursday 21 January 2010

Goodbye Scotland

A funny thing happened around the turn of the millennium. The flow of people between Northern Ireland and Scotland also turned. Back as far as the statistics are available (1991) the flow had been in Scotland's favour – more Northern Irish people moved to Scotland than the reverse. But in 2000 that changed, and Northern Ireland's ebb became a flow. In every quarter since 2000 Q2 more people have moved from Scotland to Northern Ireland than have moved from Scotland to Northern Ireland:

What could have caused this reversal of the flow? It would be nice to think that the Good Friday Agreement led many Northern Irish émigrés to return, but this is unlikely. People move for economic reasons, and rarely for ideological reasons.

Perhaps Scotland had become an unattractive place – economically and socially – following its devolution? This is also unlikely, as migratory flows between Scotland and England and Wales are very much in Scotland's favour. Over the period from 1991 to 2009 Scotland gained a net 320,000 people from England and Wales, but gained barely 800 from Northern Ireland.

So why are Northern Irish people no longer emigrating to Scotland in the same numbers?

Changes in funding arrangements for third-level education could be playing a part. Up-front tuition fees were abolished in Scotland in 2000 – but only for Scottish-domiciled students. Those from elsewhere in the UK had to pay fees (though, ironically, students from outside the UK, including the south of Ireland, were treated as 'local' students and paid no fees). This had the effect of encouraging Scottish students to stay in Scotland. The increased cost of going to university may have led more students to stay at home in Northern Ireland, thus greatly reducing the outflow to Scotland. With a reduced outflow, perhaps the underlying inflow from Scotland came to the surface. This still does not explain why there is an underlying positive inflow though. Some may be Northern Irish students returning after graduation, but who are the rest?

It will be interesting to see if this pattern continues, and if it does, whether it has any effect on Northern Ireland's increasingly close community balance. Scottish migrants could, after all, be either unionist-minded like Ian Paisley's parents, republican-minded like Pat Doherty MP MLA, or socialist like James Connolly.

Identity crisis

Regular readers of this blog will by now have realised that, in direct objective per capita comparisons, the south of Ireland is superior to the UK (and thus, by implication, to the north of Ireland). Index after index demonstrates that the south out-performs the UK economically, socially, in terms of freedom and peacefulness, and so on.

A rational person – one who seeks to maximise their own happiness and well-being – would seek to be part of the superior society. This, indeed, is what lies behind much of modern-day migration. But migration has costs as well as benefits – the financial cost of moving, the social cost of leaving your family and community, the risk of alienation or even violence in the new home, and the risk of capture and deportation for those migrants who are illegal. So in practice, most people do not migrate – most Mexicans stay in Mexico, and most Somalis stay in Somalia.

Almost uniquely in the world, though, the people of Northern Ireland have the legal power to migrate their whole territory from the inferior state to the superior one. The terms of the British-Irish Agreement (Article 1(iv)) state that:

"… if in the future, the people of the island of Ireland exercise their right of self-determination on the basis set out in sections (i) and (ii) above to bring about a united Ireland, it will be a binding obligation on both Governments to introduce and support in their respective Parliaments legislation to give effect to that wish".
A 'migration' of the whole of Northern Ireland – by reunification with the south – would remove all of the costs that physical migrants face. There would be no need for individuals to actually move, they would thus suffer no disruption to their family or community lives, and there would be no financial costs. Yet, almost immediately, they would benefit from their inclusion in a more modern, freer and more democratic state.

So why do they not do it? Why does a very slender majority (soon to be only a plurality) continually vote to remain tied to the less free, less democratic, poorer and less contented state to their east?

The answer, of course, lies in the complicated area of identity.

Unionists are quick to point out that – regardless of the higher quality of life in the south – they wish to remain in the UK because they are British. Such a point of view cannot be argued away, as it is an emotional attachment rather than simply an economic one. Emotional attachments can withstand enormous counter-arguments – people are prepared to forego the possibilities of higher living standards, better health care, better climates, better education and so on, rather than change what they perceive themselves to be. Identity is complex – the election of Barack Obama in 2008 was greeted by black people worldwide as an election of 'one of their own' – despite the obvious facts that for non-Americans he was not 'one of their own' in terms of nationality, for black women he was not 'one of their own' gender, or for poor blacks he was certainly not 'one of their own' economically. Yet they felt a kindred spirit in terms of skin pigmentation.

A similar anomaly can be seen in Britain, where large numbers of migrants and children of migrants refuse to assimilate. They maintain their attachment to their places of origin despite the obvious economic superiority of the west. They retain strong attachments to repressive cultures despite the offer of western freedoms. They do this because they have a strong emotional bind to the identity that they were born into.

In the context of Northern Ireland this can be seen in the fact that despite long decades during which the economic situation south of the border was bad, and the north clearly offered a higher standard of living, most northern nationalists retained their Irish identities. Despite the constant jibes from unionists about how health and education were better in the north – even, on occasions, about how a can of Coke or a Mars bar was cheaper in the north – the vast majority of northern nationalists retained their sense of themselves as Irish, and kept alive the desire to see the reunification of their country, when times were better.

The lesson to be drawn from this is clear.

Identities are not easily changed by economic realities. In the 1950s northern nationalists did not become unionists. Similarly, in the 2000s northern unionists will not become nationalists. Despite all of the indices that this blog has publicised, probably not more than a handful of unionists have even started to question their unionism.

Likewise, unionist attempts to 'convert' nationalists by boasting about how being in the UK gives them access to all sorts of things are equally futile. Nationalists know, in any case, that all EU citizens have access to exactly the same sorts of things – there are no 'membership privileges' that being in the UK gives that are not shared or surpassed by EU membership.

The future of Northern Ireland, therefore, will not be decided by conversions from one tribe to the other. It will be decided by the relative sizes of the two tribes. Both tribes will retain their identities, but if one outnumbers the other, then the see-saw will swing. This blog offers a record of how the balance is changing – and in historical terms it is changing very fast. The growth in the nationalist electorate, and in its corresponding Catholic 'identity community', is remarkable over the past generation – and the corresponding decline in the unionist/Protestant 'identity community' is equally remarkable. Demographic changes have a momentum that is very slow to change, and it is likely that the Catholic/nationalist community will outnumber the Protestant/unionist community before the juggernaut slows down.

The best that the Protestant/unionist community can hope for is that it negotiates a decent place for itself in the new Ireland that will come. The good news is that, on the basis of the various indices on democracy, freedom and equality, it will find that easy to do.

Yes to the Boyne Obelisk

The Boyne Foundation, a group supported by the Orange Order, which wants to replace the obelisk erected to commemorate the Battle of the Boyne, has been asked to resubmit its plans to Louth County Council. This does not imply any opposition to the plans from the Council, but merely a need for further information on a number of “major concerns” about the associated car park and picnic area.

As long as these concerns are satisfied, the plans should be approved.

The obelisk, which was over 50 metres tall, was erected in 1736, and blown up in 1923, probably by so-called republicans:

It should not have been blown up – true republicanism values the co-existence of all of Ireland's varied peoples, along with their cultures, symbols and languages. The Obelisk, though large and visible, caused no offence or disruption to the lives of those around, and merely commemorated an event of importance to the Orange portion of the Irish nation. Its reconstruction is to be welcomed, and this blog hopes that it will form part of a wider commemoration of this part of our history.

Wednesday 20 January 2010

Economic Freedom

Fellow blogger Gerard O'Neill from Turbulence Ahead is getting interested in rankings as well, it seems. He has just posted a blog about the 2010 Index of Economic Freedom, which has recently been published by the Heritage Foundation.

It almost seems unnecessary to say it at this stage, but just in case there are still some unionists out there who haven't yet got the message - Ireland (i.e. the south) comes in at 5th place worldwide, and is one of only seven countries that are ranked as 'free'. The UK slips in at 11th place, and is in the category 'mostly free'.

So, to state the obvious - if unionists and others are concerned about their freedom, specially the "10 specific freedoms such as trade freedom, business freedom, investment freedom, and property rights" that the Index measures - reunification is the logical way forward.

2 down, 16 to go

As this blog pointed out on January 8, there are a limited number of dates on which the British Prime Minister can call the inevitable Westminster election. Two of those have now passed without any announcement, which leaves a steadily smaller range of possibilities for the election. We know at this point that it now cannot take place on 4 or 11 February, and it remains highly unlikely that it will take place on 1 April.

As time passes, the probability of the election falling on one of the remaining dates must, of course, increase.

The bookies are, curiously, still offering odds on a January 2010 election – which is entirely impossible now. Odds on a February election are around 33/1 against. March remains the second most popular choice for political betters, with odds of 7/2 against. Only May, with odds of 4/1 in favour, is more popular. Within May, the date of 6 May remains auspicious – in which case the announcement need not be made until 12 April.

However, since the opinion polls are not moving in Labour's favour, Gordon Brown may wish to delay the election as long as possible in the hope of better weather – which brings out more of Labour's traditional voters than bad weather – or a better economic climate, including evidence that Britain has finally emerged from recession. Perhaps Brown is hoping for the combination of two 'feel-good' factors – economic recovery and a sunny day – in order to maximise his chances. Political commentators should be looking at the long-range weather forecast as well as the economic indicators.

Weather is notoriously difficult to forecast, so Brown will have to rely on an analysis of historical weather data – which shows that the longer he waits the better the weather will be.

On the economy, the first estimate of GDP growth/shrinkage is published three-and-a-half weeks after the end of the quarter. Thus, for Q4 of 2009, the first estimate will come out next week, probably on 26 January. If it is finally positive (after over a year of negative GDP growth, i.e. recession) then Brown may be tempted to try to ride the wave by calling an immediate election. It is worth noting that his next deadline for calling the Westminster election is Tuesday 26 January – the same day as the Office for National Statistics will release its first estimate for 2009 Q4 GDP. If this happens, the election will take place on Thursday 18 February. Would Brown risk the effects of poor weather to try to benefit from better economic news?

And if he did, would Northern Ireland's parties be ready?

Brown may, of course, prefer to hedge his bets, by waiting until the next release of the GDP figures, covering the first quarter of 2010. These should be released around 26 April – and that, curiously is exactly Brown's deadline for calling an election on 20 May. If both the 2009 Q4 and the 2010 Q1 GDP figures are positive, Brown can campaign as the Prime Minister who brought Britain out of recession. And if the sun shines, who knows how the election might end up.

Pan-unionist talks

The revelation that "Ulster Unionist and senior DUP politicians held secret talks in England over the weekend" is both surprising and unsettling. The fact that the talks were hosted by the Conservative Party is even more remarkable.

Even Peter Robinson – currently unable to function as First Minister – was nonetheless present.

The Tory hosts said the purpose of the meeting was to "promote greater political stability"; yet neither the SDLP nor Sinn Féin were apparently invited. The aim of the meeting was clearly not to 'promote greater political stability', but to promote greater unionist representation at Westminster after the upcoming election.

Almost certainly the meeting was called in order to facilitate some sort of pact between the DUP and the UUP/UCUNF. It has become increasingly clear that the Tory's macho promise to 'stand in every constituency' was made with Britain in mind, and not Northern Ireland. If the Tories do stand in all 18 Northern Irish constituencies, and the DUP stand as well (as sitting MPs in nine of them, they can hardly stand aside), then there is a good chance that nationalists will retain the two 'target' seats of South Belfast and Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Worse, though, from the unionist point of view, is that a split unionist vote could even allow nationalists to snatch up to two additional seats – Upper Bann and North Belfast – leaving them, if everything goes their way, with a majority of the Northern Irish Westminster seats!

Such a scenario is, of course unthinkable to unionists. The DUP has been playing hard-ball, insisting on its 'right' to stand in both South Belfast and Fermanagh and South Tyrone, as they polled a greater share of the vote in the 2007 Assembly elections in these constituencies than the UUP. The UUP, for its part, has been obliged to pay lip service to the Tory promise.

Behind the scenes and away from the rhetoric, though, the strategists must have noticed the problem. The Tories want all the seats they can get, and even an extra one or two in Northern Ireland would be welcome. To win the election without winning a single seat in Northern Ireland would be embarrassing, but to win the election and actually lose seats in Northern Ireland would represent a local humiliation. Worst of all would be to find that the new Parliament is hung, and that the extra few seats that Northern Ireland might have delivered would have made all the difference.

Hence the new-found realism of the Tories. Above all else, they want to win the upcoming election, and if making a pact with the devil is the way to do it, then that is what they'll do.

So expect the announcement in the next month or two, of an 'arrangement' – not a pact – between the DUP and UCUNF, in which UCUNF will climb down from their foolish promise to stand in every constituency, and in which the DUP will stand aside in several key constituencies – perhaps in both South Belfast and Fermanagh and South Tyrone. The quid pro quo for the DUP will be that UCUNF will not oppose them in constituencies that are sensitive for the DUP – North Belfast, perhaps even North Antrim.

This UCUNF climb-down will be briefly embarrassing for the UUP, but will not even be noticed in Britain.

When the 'arrangement' (or 'agreement', 'understanding', 'unspoken deal', or whatever it will be called) becomes public it will reinforce again the sense that the Conservative Party – and thus perhaps the future British government – is taking sides in Northern Ireland. Nobody is in any doubt whatsoever that the Tories are, and always have been, at heart pro-unionist, but the convention for a generation or more is that London governments do not overtly take sides within Northern Ireland. In office, in fact, the Tories have often angered their 'loyal' subjects more than Labour. It was, after all, a Tory government that signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement and stated that the UK has no 'selfish strategic interest in Northern Ireland'.

The attempt by the Tories to hoover up seats in Northern Ireland for their own selfish interests will not greatly concern many unionists – for them it would be a confluence of interests. For the DUP, though, any Tory/UUP success is likely to come at their expense, so they will be less thrilled. Right now, though, they are looking very vulnerable, both from the right (the TUV), the centre-right (UCUNF), and the religious right (who are a bit unhappy about Iris and money issues). The secret talks could represent the best chance the DUP currently have to avoid a wipe-out – or at least the loss of half their seats.

For nationalists, of course, the talks confirm what they have always suspected – that the Tories are simply unionists in another guise. Ideological arguments in favour of voting Tory will be negated by the obvious tribal bias that the Tories are now displaying. The long-term effect of this will probably be favourable for nationalism – the non-merger between the UUP and the Tories was already a warning that they were going to side with the unionist camp, but if an 'arrangement' with the DUP follows so soon afterwards it will ensure that few nationalists will consider voting Tory. Nationalists will see the three parties (UUP, DUP, Tories) as simply different flavours of unionism (not to mention the TUV). Nationalists will most probably remain with their existing parties, or will seek to get Fianna Fáil to set up more systematically in the north.

If they achieves nothing else, last weekend's talks have already burst the bubble of expectations that the Tory invasion of Northern Ireland raised. Promises to "bring into politics those who’ve been put off by the sectarian divisions of the past" will be seen as hollow if the Tories enter into any arrangement with the arch-sectarian DUP. A "'modern, inclusive, tolerant and compassionate centre-right force committed to social justice" that divvies up seats with the homophobic bigots of the DUP will be a laughing stock. And a party that claims that "we’re not interested in people’s community background or religion – only what they can offer as we seek to build a shared future for everybody", yet enters an electoral arrangement with a party that obstructs every expression of the cultural identity of almost half of the population, is simply not credible. The civic unionists of the UUP who were initially sceptical about the UCUNF non-merger will have been proven correct, and will be seriously disappointed if any deal with the DUP is made.

Tuesday 19 January 2010

Does Peace matter?

The Institute for Economics and Peace is 'an independent non-partisan not-for-profit research institute dedicated to developing the inter-relationships between business, peace and economic development'.

One of its 'core assets' is The Global Peace Index (GPI). This is a 'ground-breaking milestone in the study of peace, and is the first time that an Index has been created that ranks the nations of the world by their peacefulness'.

As the GPI says about itself:

"140 countries have been ranked by their 'absence of violence', using metrics that combine both internal and external factors. Most people understand the absence of violence as an indicator of peace. This definition also allows for the measuring of peacefulness within, as well as between, nations.

The Institute for Economics and Peace, in conjunction with the Economist Intelligence Unit and with the guidance of an international team of academics and peace experts, has compiled the Global Peace Index (GPI). The Index is composed of 24 indicators, ranging from a nation's level of military expenditure to its relations with neighbouring countries and the level of respect for human rights. The index has been tested against a range of potential "drivers" or determinants of peace—including levels of democracy and transparency, education and material wellbeing. The team has used the latest available figures from a wide range of respected sources, including the International Institute of Strategic Studies, The World Bank, various UN offices and Peace Institutes and the Economist Intelligence Unit. The Global Peace Index is intended to contribute significantly to the public debate on peace."

The GPI has existed only for three years – 2007, 2008 and 2009. The 2009 GPI was released last August, but is worth mentioning nonetheless.

Unsurprisingly, the Nordic-New Zealand Axis of Goodness dominated the rankings for 2009, but just below them, at 12th place worldwide stands Ireland (i.e. the south) – above even Switzerland and the Netherlands!

As for the UK, well, its 35th place put it slightly ahead of Vietnam, Bhutan and the United Arab Emirates – but it was a pretty poor ranking (and fourth-worst in Western Europe). In fairness, its ranking has improved since the two previous years, when it was in 49th place.

Ireland has slipped in the three years of the GPI from 4th place in 2007 and 6th place in 2008. But it remains comfortably a more peaceful place than the UK.

Does peace matter? Well, in the view of Helen Clark, Administrator of the UN Development Program and former Prime Minister of New Zealand:

"It is notable that the countries ranked in the top ten of the Global Peace Index are also ranked as having ‘very high human development’ in the Human Development Index produced by UNDP. That composite index measures average achievement in countries according to three basic dimensions of human development – a long and healthy life; access to knowledge; and a decent standard of living.

Conversely, those societies not at peace, or those affected by violent conflict, are ranked low on the Human Development Index. As the Managing Director of the IMF has said so accurately – war can justifiably be called “development in reverse.”

There is also significant evidence that conflict has long lasting negative impacts on human development; causing not only death and injury, but also destroying physical and human capital, and leading to increases in malnutrition. Conflict has a profound psycho-social impact too as it rips societies apart.

All these consequences underscore the importance of promoting peace and stability if we are also to promote development."
This Index, like so many others, demonstrates that the position of unionism is illogical. It claims to have rational reasons for wanting to remain in the UK, but yet again it can be seen that these reasons are false. For the good of the people of Northern Ireland – all of the people, unionist, nationalist and others – Northern Ireland needs to leave the UK and reunify with the rest of the country.

Monday 18 January 2010

Civil liberty

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Index of Democracy 2008 scores countries on five separate categories: electoral process and pluralism; civil liberties; the functioning of government; political participation; and political culture.

Unsurprisingly the top of the table is taken up by 'the usual suspects' – Sweden, Norway, Iceland, the Netherlands, Denmark, Finland, New Zealand, and so on. Needless to say, countries in Europe, North America and the Antipodes almost monopolise the Top 20.

The index awards an overall score based on the five categories – 10 is the maximum possible score. The average score for Western Europe is 8.61.

Ireland (i.e. the south) scores 9.01 – above-average even in Western Europe – and gets a perfect 10 for Civil Liberties, bringing it to 12th place worldwide.

The UK scores 8.15 – barely ahead of Greece and well below the Western European average. Worldwide it comes in at 21st place.

The lesson is clear. Those who value democracy, and especially civil liberties, should not be unionists, because the UK is a below-average Western democracy. The "Irish Free State" might no longer exist, but the Irish Freer State certainly does, and it starts just south of Newry! Reunification offers everyone in the country the opportunity to enjoy greater democracy and more civil liberty.

Equality Commission Monitoring Report for 2008

Every year the Equality Commission publishes a Monitoring Report on the Northern Ireland workforce showing the proportions of Protestants and Catholics employed in most major public and private sector organisations. For 2008, Monitoring Report N° 19 was published on 8 December 2009.

The Monitoring Report looks at the 'monitored workforce', which comprises all public sector employers and private sector concerns with 11 or more employees. It thereby included, in 2008, 529,857 employees (of whom 447,654 full-time, and 82,203 part-time).

The Report contains a wealth of fascinating detail about the composition and evolution of the Northern Irish workforce in terms of community background. The Report breaks down its data by community background, gender, full or part-time nature, Standard Occupational categories, public or private employment, and so on. The quantity of data contained in the Report is too great to discuss fully in a single blog entry, so this blog will limit itself to a number of key details:

Overall, for all employees (full or part-time)
- The total monitored workforce now stands at 529,857 employees, a rise of 0.7% or 3,646 since 2007.
- In 2008, the overall composition of those for whom a community could be determined was 54.8% Protestant and 45.2% Catholic.
- Total Protestant employment fell by 1,808 (0.7%) during the year, while the Catholic count increased by 4,495 (2.1%). As a result, the Catholic share rose from 44.6% to 45.2%.

In the private sector, for all employees (full or part-time)
- The total private sector workforce now stands at 339,904 employees, an increase of 5,712 employees (1.7%) since 2007.
- The composition was 54.8% Protestant and 45.2% Catholic.
- Total Catholic private sector employment increased by 3,846 employees (2.8%) during the year, while the Protestant count grew by 644 (0.4%). As a result, the Protestant share of the private sector fell from 55.4% in 2007 to 54.8% in 2008.

And in the public sector, for all employees (full or part-time)
- The total public sector workforce now stands at 189,953 employees, a fall of 2,066 employees (1.1%) since 2007.
- The composition was 54.6% Protestant and 45.4% Catholic.
-Total Protestant public sector employment fell by 2.4% or 2,452 employees during the year, while the Catholic count increased by 649 (0.8%). As a result, the Catholic share of the public sector rose from 44.6% in 2007 to 45.4% in 2008.

Within these totals there can be more mixed figures – for example, while the overall Protestant share in the private sector dropped, the Protestant share amongst part-timers in the private sector rose slightly. But the overall picture remains one of Catholic advance and Protestant retreat.

Some of the clearest and most striking sections are the graphs that show the evolution over the period from 2001 to 2008. For example, the evolution of the entire monitored workforce over the period:

The graph above, showing the evolution of the whole monitored workforce, clearly shows that Catholics are steadily increasing their share of the workforce. The graph below shows how this is happening. As a proportion of job applicants, Catholics have now caught up with Protestants:

This reflects the increasing proportion of Northern Ireland's young people who are from the Catholic community. In addition to those shown in the graph above, the community background of another 15% of applicants was 'non-determined'. No assumptions can be made about these people, of course, but given the generations of discrimination that Catholics have endured, it would not be unlikely that Catholic applicants would disguise their community origins more often than Protestant applicants.

2008 was, of course, an unusual year, with the economic crisis starting to affect the workforce and in particular the numbers of jobs available and the numbers of applicants for these. Yet the numbers in the monitored workforce actually increased overall in 2008, and the workforce peaked in October 2008. The Monitoring Report for 2009 – to be published in December 2010 – will provide an interesting insight into how the recession has influenced the community breakdown of Northern Ireland's workforce. However, even if the recession causes some unusual figures, the evolution over the long-term seems to be constant and consistent with a growing Catholic share of the population. As Protestants form a large majority of those at older ages, especially those coming to retirement age, the 'greening' of the workforce is due to continue for the foreseeable future.

Is there a hidden hand?

The simultaneous troubles being experienced by Northern Ireland's two principal political parties – the unionist DUP and the nationalist Sinn Féin – are puzzling. Both parties are being buffeted by a drip-feed of revelations about the behaviour and actions of some of their members – actions which range from the foolish, through the incorrect, right up to the extremely criminal.

Whilst the actions themselves are serious and need to be addressed, and the guilty parties need to be duly punished, the puzzling question is 'why are these things suddenly coming to light now?'

If the DUP's trouble – Iris Robinson – is looked at first, the time-line is hard to comprehend. Northern Ireland is a small place, and nothing that happens to a well-known public figure can easily be concealed. And yet Robinson managed to have at least one affair, and probably several, without word escaping. Her sexual affairs were apparently known to police guarding her house – and yet not a whisper was heard on the grapevine. More unbelievably, she attempted suicide almost 10 months ago, and yet carried on in the public gaze – as did her husband Peter. And then, all of a sudden it all spilled out into the public arena, and Peter Robinson then took on the appearance of a broken man – despite not appearing remotely 'broken' even on the day after her apparent suicide attempt when, according to his own account, he had just discovered that she had cheated on him with a teenager!

On the Sinn Féin side of the divide the revelations are even odder. Yesterday's Sunday Tribune reveals a shocking story of abuse suffered by the 10-year old girl at the hands of an elected Sinn Féin representative. In this case, though, there is no doubt whatsoever that the story was well known to those 'in authority'. As the Sunday Tribune describes it:

"The abuse took place for over a year in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when social services took her, battered and bruised, into care.

She was examined in Lissue Hospital, Co Antrim, by Dr Oliver Shanks. The Sunday Tribune has seen his report. Shanks noted that she had a cut under her left eye, two bruises on her face, and four on her trunk. Her upper thighs were covered in bruises as were the backs of her hands."

"There was sexual abuse too. Her teachers at Ardoyne's Holy Cross school had noted her "abnormal sexual behaviour and general behaviour problems". The Sunday Tribune has seen their statements to social services. Her GP referred her to a psychiatrist in the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children "because of abnormal sexual interest".

"Official reports seen by the Sunday Tribune show that neighbours in Ardoyne contacted social services about X's treatment of the victim."

So the victim's suffering had, over long periods of time, been known about by or reported to, the Eastern Health and Social Services Department, Lissue Hospital, her teachers, her GP, the school health visitor, the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children, her neighbours, Belfast Juvenile Court, Nazareth Lodge children's home, the PSNI, Public Prosecution Service, and Sinn Féin. And yet, despite the public profile of the alleged abuser (named, at present, in comments on the Slugger O'Toole website) the issue was entirely absent from the media. Amongst the numerous bodies and individuals with knowledge of the issue – right back to 1984 – no-one ever leaked a word. No shady 'security' organisation used the facts to blacken the image of Sinn Féin. No political opponent tried to use the case to gain political advantage.

Until now.

And now, almost simultaneous with the Iris Robinson revelations, the world is treated to two separate Sinn Féin-related scandals – one concerning Liam Adams, and the other concerning the unfortunate 10-year old.

Both cases are shocking, and both should be followed up vigorously. But neither case is new, and dozens, perhaps hundreds of people were familiar with the facts of one or other case. And yet, for most of the time that the abuses were going on, no attempt was made to stop them by the bodies with responsibility to do so.

The coincidence of these cases, and Iris Robinson's affairs, being revealed now, rather than at any time over the past generation is extremely puzzling. That both leading parties – the DUP and Sinn Féin – are being simultaneously hobbled by the ongoing drip-feed of allegations and revelations is strange and unusual, to say the least.

Some might see these as mere coincidences, but others may question whether external actors are not involved. In both the Robinson and Sinn Féin cases the facts must have been well known to the security services of all of the interested parties – the PSNI, London, Dublin and Washington. If the facts were suppressed – and they were – then this suppression must have suited the interested parties. In other words, they did not want the 'peace process' derailed by the release of inconvenient facts about the players. If that was the case then, it seems no longer to be the case now. The coincidence of damaging stories affecting both main players accidentally coming to light at almost the same moment is simply too hard to believe.

Has a point been reached in the 'peace process' where the two main parties are now seen as expendable? Could the revelations have been timed to weaken the two parties at a sensitive moment, as they face into a 12-month season of crucial elections? Or could there be an intention to simply cripple the parties in order to keep Northern Irish politics petty, parochial and pliable for another decade or so?

Damaging the DUP clearly could hand an advantage to the UUP – now the bed-mate of the English Tories – but on the nationalist side Sinn Féin is increasingly dominant, so damaging them gives little advantage to the SDLP. Perhaps the goal here is simply to demoralise the nationalist population. One thing, of course, is certain – no evidence of a hidden hand will ever be made public, leaving many people to question what really happened during the winter of 2009-2010.

Sunday 17 January 2010

A long overdue handshake

Almost two years ago this blog argued that:
"... despite co-operating with Martin McGuinness in the government of Northern Ireland, despite giving tacit support to the notions of reconciliation and rebuilding, and despite calling himself a Christian, Ian Paisley consistently refuses to carry out the one simple act of shaking Martin McGuinness's hand. His refusal to do something so simple, yet so symbolic, speaks volumes about his commitment to peace, to reconciliation, even to Christianity. It is a disgrace and utterly indefensible."

After Paisley's departure the disgrace became Robinson's.

Today, finally, several years too late, the Times reports that Robinson has finally taken the basic human step of shaking his colleague's hand.

"The pair shook hands during a private meeting at Stormont. Even when McGuinness and Ian Paisley were known as the Chuckle Brothers, Robinson’s predecessor denied the Sinn Fein MP this symbolic gesture. "

Perhaps this small symbolic act is the precursor of a more fundamental change in DUP behaviour, and of a final acceptance that the two tribes are going to have to live alongside each other for generations to come. Better to live in peace than to strive always to heighten tensions and to reduce everyone's enjoyment of life. If so, better late than never.

Friday 15 January 2010

The curious Lurgan electorate

The fairly irrelevant little by-election in Lurgan is now past history, and will only ever again be remembered by the small band of Northern Irish psephologists.

One miniscule issue remains unanswered, for this blog in any case. The reported turnout was low – the official result states that it was 23.62%. However, the turnout percentage is a function of two other figures: the votes polled (valid and spoiled) and the electorate. The votes polled (3,936) divided by the reported electorate (16,663) gives the turnout (23.62%).

So far so clear. The number of votes polled may or may not be 100% accurate – the counters can make mistakes, and the recounts that occur in many elections always give different figures. But this blog has no reason to question them in this case.

The figure given for the electorate, though, is a different story. Where did that figure of 16,663 come from? The Guide for candidates and agents, published by the Electoral Office in advance of the election, states that:

"Only those whose name is on the electoral register on 2 January 2010 will be able to vote." (Guide, p. 3)

"[Candidates] will be entitled to receive copies of the register for the District Electoral Area published on 1 December 2009, which you must use when completing nomination papers, and 4 January 2010, which is the register that will be used on polling day." (Guide, p. 18)

So that is clear then. The relevant electoral register is that for 4 January 2010.

But the electoral register for 4 January 2010 gives the following numbers of the electorates in the seven wards that make up Lurgan DEA:

Magheralin: 3,563
Donaghcloney: 2,660
Waringstown: 2,970
Parklake: 2,256
Mourneview: 1,623
Church: 1,385
Knocknashane: 2,473
This gives a total of 16,930. Not the figure of 16,663 that the Electoral Office used in their publication of the results.

So why is there a difference of 267 between the electorate that the Electoral Office said was the correct one, and the electorate that was published on the official result sheet, and that was used to calculate the turnout percentage?

If the 'correct' (4 January 2010) electorate is used, the actual turnout on Wednesday would be 23.25%. A tiny difference, of course, but a puzzling one.

Change of tune from Unionism

In April 2009 children from the St Comghall's GAA club in Antrim town, who were raising money by packing bags in the local Tesco supermarket were forced to remove their GAA tops as a result of complaints from bigots, including Antrim deputy mayor, the UUP's Adrian Watson.

Last night the same club, St Comghall's, was the victim of an attempted attack (mass murder) by loyalists. But on this occasion the now Mayor of Antrim – the same Adrian Watson – said it was a:

"... disgusting attack by mindless thugs who had nothing to offer the community. These are young men training in a community centre surrounded by hundreds of homes", and "they have done nothing wrong, bar being members of a GAA club".

Now, being charitable, it is likely that he did not mean that being members of a GAA club was 'wrong'. In which case, it represents a remarkable change of tune from unionism. Where previously they sang dumb when GAA property of members were attacked, or they actually carried out vicious (verbal) attacks themselves, now members of the unionist parties are actually volunteering condemnation of loyalist thugs for attacking the GAA.

The attack was also condemned by DUP MLA Trevor Clarke, so the condemnations appear to represent a new thinking within unionism rather than just a maverick comment by one person.

Is this evidence of a new less confrontational unionist approach to the GAA?

Thursday 14 January 2010

Craigavon Lurgan by-election result

This blog anticipated a low turnout for yesterday's by-election in the Lurgan DEA of Craigavon Borough Council, but it turned out to be much lower than expected.

Barely 23% of the electorate turned out to vote – hardly surprising since the election result was virtually a certainty, and the election received almost no publicity at all due to the Robinson affair. (NB the News Letter article gives a different turn-out, but if the correct one is used the turnout seems to be 23.1%)

The result was, however, as this blog anticipated – a clear victory for the UUP candidate. Jo-Anne Dobson took 63.9% of the vote for the UUP, followed by the TUV's David Calvert on 19.3%. So the TUV lost the seat, and the spirit, if not the word, of the deal agreed between the DUP and the TUV last August was shattered. Relations between the two parties will plummet to another low. Had the DUP known that Iris Robinson was going to have to resign from Castlereagh Borough Council, then they might have been keener on keeping the 'co-option' deal alive. But now, with the TUV looking for revenge – and with a TUV councillor, Charlie Tosh, on Castlereagh Council – there will be no co-option for Robinson's seat.

No conclusions can be drawn from the increased nationalist percentage (16.8%) compared with 2005 as a result of the extremely low turnout, but it is interesting to note that Sinn Féin increased its lead over the SDLP – taking 61% of the nationalist vote compared to 54% in 2005 (and 47% in 2001).

The full result of the by-election in Lurgan was:

Jo-Anne Dobson (UUP): 2,494 (63.9%)
David Calvert (TUV): 752 (19.2%)
Liam Mackle (SF): 401 (10.3%)
Patrick McDade (SDLP): 256 (6.6%)

Electorate: 16,930
Turnout: 23.1%

Policing and justice endgame (part 1)

The DUP is apparently trying to use the policing and justice issue to force changes in the Orange parades issue in its favour. In short, it is insisting on progress towards an Orange-friendly arrangement as a pre-condition.

This raises two different questions.

Firstly, if the DUP is trying to bundle issues, then why shouldn't Sinn Féin? If parades can be a pre-condition, then so can the Irish Language Act. In other words, if the DUP is trying to re-activate other issues, then why should they not all be re-activated?

Secondly, the DUP appear to be seeking an arrangement on parades along the lines of the interim proposals of the Strategic Review of Parading (the Ashdown review). 'Along the lines' is, of course, a somewhat vague description, and the DUP have not formally described what deviations from the Interim Report they are seeking. But the recommendations of the Interim Report are not, at first glance, very favourable for the Orange cause at all. In fact, one could describe them as requiring the Orange Order to be dragged kicking and screaming into the modern world – they most certainly do not give the Orange Order much succour in its constant battle against treating nationalists as second-class citizens.

Sinn Féin are reported as resisting DUP efforts to replace the Parades Commission, but it should be noted that, for the party, parades seem to have a very low importance at the moment. It may have escaped the attention of most unionists, but Sinn Féin has had almost nothing to say about the parading issue for a number of years now. It is not a republican totem. So it is quite likely that Sinn Féin's attachment to the Parades Commission is strategic – the Interim Review of the Strategic Review of Parading does not propose anything that significantly weakens the position of nationalist residents, and may even, in some ways, strengthen it. So Sinn Féin may be very happy to accept the bulk of the Interim Report's recommendations as part of a broader deal with the DUP.

But having successfully got almost all players on its side over policing and justice, it would be foolish of Sinn Féin to swap progress there against something that it is fairly ambivalent about. The DUP has to accept the transfer of P+J – they know that, and so does Sinn Féin. So, to an extent that is banked. Sinn Féin should insist, as its quid-pro-quo for the implementation of the Interim Report recommendations, on a public commitment from the DUP on the Irish Language – preferably a commitment to an ILA, but if not, then something equivalent.

If the DUP tries to stall the transfer of P+J again on the pretext of the parading issue, it will show the watching world – particularly in London and Dublin – that it was playing a cynical game that had little to do with the actual transfer of P+J and more to do with simply trying to make political gains. The consequences of such cynicism will be heavy, given the public investment in the issue made by Gordon Brown, Shaun Woodward and Brian Cowen. If the DUP think that the probable future Tory government will be kinder to them, they may get an unpleasant surprise. However, if a future Tory government does take the DUP's side, the Assembly is finished, and with it the political careers of many unionists.

The DUP clearly thinks that it can extract more concessions from the governments as part of its acceptance of the transfer of P+J, but the reality may be that they may have to pay a price for those concessions too.

Wednesday 13 January 2010

Too late, Arlene, too late!

Acting First Minister Arlene Foster has said there will be no deal on policing and justice 'under duress'.

But Arlene, have you not been paying attention?

Duress, and lots of it, is exactly what the DUP is under. Duress from the British – Gordon Brown and Shaun Woodward – duress from Dublin, duress from Sinn Féin, duress from virtually the whole spectrum.

Foster’s statement can only be interpreted as a rather sad little attempt to save face. She knows that the DUP is going to have to bend, sooner or not much later, and she is desperately trying to pretend that she has not acted under pressure. But she will act under pressure – either pressure from most other actors, to accept the transfer of P+J, or pressure from the nay-sayers of extreme unionism within her own party or in the TUV, to reject the transfer.

She knows that the only realistic choice is acceptance of the transfer. Pretending that it was her choice rather than the result of pressure is futile. The DUP will bend to the pressure from outside, and no attempts at face-saving will help it. It has already lost face, prestige, international standing and goodwill – so Foster’s pathetic pretence at DUP ‘control’ just looks sad.

Do the deal, Foster. Show that you’re a bigger person than Robinson. It isn't hard.

BBC sharpens its accusations

The BBC has today gone a step further than most other media outlets by stating categorically that Iris Robinson "broke the law". There are no libel-averse weasel-words like 'allegedly' or 'apparently'. No, the statement is clear and unambiguous:

"Mrs Robinson, who is a councillor, MP and MLA, procured money from two property developers to help her teenage lover Kirk McCambley to open a cafe.

She then attended the council meeting during which the cafe lease was awarded to Mr McCambley but broke the law by not declaring her financial interest." [bold added]

So it seems that, for the BBC, the story is sufficiently waterproof that they have no fear whatsoever of Iris Robinson's lawyers.

What the penalty is for such a breach of the law is not yet known, but no doubt there are a number of agencies looking into it. Perhaps Iris will follow her husband – Peter the Punt – into the ranks of the sentenced offenders.

Tuesday 12 January 2010

Don't forget Lurgan

With all the media frenzy (not to mention the public voyeurism) concerning Iris Robinson and the knock-on effects of her surprising revelations, it is easy to forget that normal everyday politics also goes on in Northern Ireland.

One such example comes tomorrow, with the by-election in Lurgan DEA of Craigavon Borough Council. In itself this by-election is interesting – though rather overshadowed by the Robinson saga. Unfortunately for those hoping to garner some pointers towards how events are impacting on the DUP this election will not help, as the DUP are not even standing.

The election is between an unpopular TUV candidate and an unknown UUP candidate. David Calvert, the TUV candidate who failed to get co-opted back in November when an apparent deal between the DUP and the TUV came slightly unstuck, will try to get elected – despite personal unpopularity and past electoral failure. In 2005, before the TUV was formed, Calvert stood as an independent candidate – and received 626 votes (6.4% of the votes cast in Lurgan). His opponents tomorrow, the UUP, received 3,928 votes in 2005 (40.2% of the votes cast in Lurgan). On the face of it, then, Calvert has no hope.

Tomorrow, though, the DUP is not standing – and even if it did, the TUV could expect to peel away a section of its support. It could be argued, of course, that Calvert had already peeled away much of the rejectionist vote from the DUP in 2005, and that there isn't much left he could steal. But even if he did take a slice of the DUP vote similar to that taken by the TUV in Dromore in February 2008, and in the 2009 European Parliament election, he would still be well behind the UUP.

The real winner tomorrow, however, will be apathy. Local by-elections rarely attract a high turn-out at the best of times (Dromore had a 39% turnout, and the more recent by-election in Enniskillen barely topped 50%). Without a DUP candidate, a lot of voters will stay at home tomorrow – the DUP voters because they have no candidate, the TUV voters because they have no DUP candidate to vote against, and also because they know that their own man is a no-hoper. Nationalists, only 14% of Lurgan's electorate, have no incentive to vote in a by-election. Even the UUP voters, safe in the knowledge that their candidate will probably win, have little incentive to go out on a cold day to vote.

So this blog expects a very low turn-out – 40% at best, perhaps significantly less – and a fairly easy victory for the UUP's Jo-Anne Dobson. Anything else would be a surprise.