Friday, 28 October 2016

Competence, not electoral flirtation, the way forward for UUP & SDLP

Is there a party more promiscuous, politically, than the Ulster Unionists?  For ten years, at least, the UUP has tried to meet “the one”, to help it secure electoral success and greater influence. 
Back in 2006, Ulster Unionists persuaded former PUP MLA, David Ervine, to join their Assembly group, in an attempt to gain an extra Executive minister, though the arrangement was thwarted eventually by Stormont’s rules.  Then they fought two elections with the Conservatives, under the clumsy title, Ulster Conservatives and Unionists - New Force.   

At the last Westminster election, Ulster Unionists struck electoral deals with both the DUP and independent unionist, Sylvia Hermon.  In Fermanagh South Tyrone, both main unionist parties campaigned for Tom Elliott, while the UUP stood aside in North Belfast, East Belfast and North Down, to give rival candidates a free run. 

Now they’re at it again.  

At the Ulster Unionists’ annual conference last Saturday, Mike Nesbitt cavorted on stage with Colum Eastwood, announcing the party’s latest dalliance - the SDLP - its partner in Stormont’s official opposition.  “Vote (for) Colum and me and you get a whole new middle ground politics”, the UUP leader promised the public. 

This budding relationship may not yet be “exclusive”.  In a pre-conference interview with the News Letter, Nesbitt refused to rule out another pact with the DUP, aimed at maximising “the number of pro-Union MPs from Northern Ireland. 

Sam McBride wrote about the risk of confusing voters with multiple alliances, and noted that, to date, electors have been reluctant to transfer between unionist and nationalist candidates, or vice versa.  There are other profound difficulties with marrying the parties’ philosophies, as well as their views on everyday issues at the Assembly.  

The most obvious difference - on whether our constitutional future should lie with the UK or the Republic of Ireland - could have been surmounted more easily prior to the ‘Brexit’ referendum.  After all, Eastwood pledged that, under his leadership, the SDLP will try to “make Northern Ireland work”, despite its long-term goal of a united Ireland. 

However, the British public’s decision to leave the EU has revived nationalist hopes of loosening links with Great Britain and binding us more closely to the Republic of Ireland.  The SDLP has promoted the idea of a “special status” for Northern Ireland that preserves elements of EU membership and dilutes ‘Brexit’, as it is likely to be implemented in the rest of the United Kingdom.   

The UUP campaigned for ‘remain’, but it cannot reconcile its unionist principles with the idea that a nationwide vote is not binding in certain parts of the UK.  Likewise, the party can’t justify taking part in Enda Kenny’s forum about the future of the island after Brexit, while it’s styled a ‘national conversation’ that purports to tackle policy for Northern Ireland. 

Then there are a myriad of issues around the economy and welfare, where the UUP should, in theory, be more realistic than its partner.           

That isn’t to say that working closely with the SDLP is a bad idea, if it’s done properly. 

Together, the two parties form the Assembly’s ‘official opposition’ and they are the main alternative to the power-sharing Executive, made up of the DUP and Sinn Fein.  Their task is to scrutinise ministers’ decisions effectively and build a reputation for competence, that persuades voters they could do a better job. 

Sadly, that seems very difficult currently.  Neither the UUP nor the SDLP has presented a coherent critique of Stormont’s failings, never mind a decent plan to do things differently.  Their appeal to voters relies mainly on the perception that they are less obnoxious than rival parties with broadly similar outlooks. 

Mike Nesbitt has to persuade voters that the UUP and the SDLP comprise a credible opposition to the Executive, before anyone will believe that Northern Ireland politics has anything so grandiose as a "whole new middle ground".   

Monday, 24 October 2016

World Cup qualifiers get serious for Northern Ireland

More fireworks at the National Stadium in 2017?
The World Cup Qualifiers are about to get serious for Michael O’Neill and his Northern Ireland team.  After taking four points from their first three games, the Ulstermen must beat Azerbaijan on November 11th at the National Stadium, if they harbour realistic hopes of reaching the finals tournament in Russia.  

Then, for 2017, four consecutive matches are scheduled, at home against Norway and the Czech Republic, and away against San Marino and Azerbaijan, that are all potentially winnable.

Earlier this month, Northern Ireland put in a spirited enough performance in Hanover, losing 2-0 to Germany, who scored both their goals early in the first half.  There’s little doubt though that the Germans will win Group C comfortably.  That leaves the Czech Republic, Norway and, potentially, in-form Azerbaijan, vying with O’Neill’s team for second place.  

Northern Ireland’s task is to win this four country ‘mini-group’ and inflict another defeat on San Marino.  Then, in October 2017, Germany will come to Belfast, where anything is possible in front of a boisterous crowd at WIndsor Park.  

So far, we’re doing as well as can be expected.  It’s a measure of Northern Ireland’s progress that a 0-0 draw away to the Czechs was greeted without much enthusiasm by supporters.
It was still an impressive result, undermined only by a lacklustre performance in the second half. Three late goals against San Marino, which secured a 4-0 victory, put the gloss on another rather flat display.  
I doubt a single member of the Green and White Army will complain if Northern Ireland continues to amass points without playing scintillating football.  Azerbaijan will be tough, wily opponents, whose players are schooled in the dark arts of time-wasting and play-acting.

They have a high-profile manager, the Croat Robert Prosinecki, who has organised a resolute defence.  So far in Group C, the Azeris have found the net infrequently, allowed their opponents to control possession and proved difficult to score against.  All attributes that are very familiar to Northern Ireland fans.  

Traditionally, this is exactly the type of game in which we’ve struggled.  That tradition changed during the last campaign, as Michael O’Neill built a side that defeated habitually mediocre to middling opponents, particularly in Belfast.  Hungary, Greece and Finland were all decent but unspectacular teams. Exactly the type of sides against which, previously, Northern Ireland dropped points.  

Germany excepted, the World Cup qualifying group has a similar feel.  The Czech Republic is a football nation with pedigree, currently down on its luck.  Norway has fielded several formidable, physical sides, but its latest team is not one of them.  The Azeris are improving, but they’re still underdogs against most opponents.

Finishing in second place is achievable, although, in this competition, it doesn’t necessarily secure a place in a play-off to reach the finals.  Eight out of the nine second place teams will get a play-off slot though and Michael O’Neill believes Northern Ireland can be one of them.

That means extending an impressive record at home, where we were last beaten in 2013, and scoring at least once against an Azeri side that is yet to concede a goal.  If Northern Ireland wins, the Green and White Army can go into 2017 confident that history can be made once again.

Friday, 21 October 2016

All-Ireland Brexit forum against basic principles of unionism

An Taoiseach Enda Kenny with D COS Sp R Adm Mark Mellett.jpg
There are often good, valid reasons to criticise the two main unionist parties in Northern Ireland but they do not include occasions when they act consistently with basic principles of the Union. Unionists cannot possibly take part in an all-island ‘national conversation’ around Northern Ireland’s constitutional status. The most fundamental tenet of unionism is that we’re part of the UK state, not an Irish ‘nation’.
In the Irish TimesNewton Emerson covers the practical reasons why neither the DUP nor Ulster Unionists can attend the southern government’s Brexit forum.
In short, this assembly has no authority and there are other, more appropriate avenues through which to discuss arrangements for the island of Ireland after the UK leaves the EU. The Good Friday Agreement set up north-south and east-west bodies, so that matters of common interest can be discussed without ignoring Northern Ireland’s constitutional position, or offending nationalists. Meanwhile, the government is designing its own process to consult with devolved regions.
When it suits, the Brexit forum has been described as a ‘conversation’, because the word is innocuous and refusal to participate in a conversation is normally thought unreasonable. Unionists can therefore be cast as sectarian nitwits, who refuse to talk in case they’re “sprayed with holy water at the door”. At the same time, the SDLP, the party whose hysteria since the referendum has been shrillest, implies that it is irresponsible to boycott the forum, because its conclusions will shape Northern Ireland’s future.
Neither slur forms a decent case for unionists to take part. Either the forum is an irrelevant sideshow, or else it promotes a national interest that unionism rejects explicitly.
The DUP and the UUP took opposing sides during the referendum campaign, but both accept, without reservation, the government’s right to implement Brexit in Northern Ireland. Neither can consider seriously arrangements which diverge significantly from the rest of the UK. In contrast, the SDLP and other nationalists encourage the idea that Northern Ireland could have a special status, precisely because they wish to loosen our ties with the rest of Britain and bind us more closely to the Republic of Ireland.
They’re well within their rights to pursue those tactics, even if old-fashioned Irish nationalist aspirations lie beneath apparent new concerns for Northern Ireland’s electoral mandate and its economy. Unionists are within their rights to respond by ensuring that Brexit isn’t used as an excuse to lever the United Kingdom further apart culturally or politically.
The DUP and the UUP have often failed to strengthen the Union effectively. Insisting that the UK’s decision to leave the EU is extended in full to all its regions and refusing to participate in an ‘all-Ireland conversation’ about Northern Ireland’s future, in contrast, are perfectly sensible decisions.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Theresa May, conservatism and Conservatism

In her first leader’s speech at a Tory Conference, Theresa May tried to explain the type of Conservatism she hopes to practise.  Although her address was popular with many delegates and the Tories’ poll ratings soared, it attracted frenzied criticism from left-liberals, who interpreted the sections on immigration as reactionary, and economic liberals, who were alarmed by May’s talk of government intervening to control markets.

Previously, I wrote that the new prime minister was associated with ‘pragmatism’ rather than any particular political ideology.  Mrs May’s conference speech suggested that she thinks Conservatism is something more than a commitment to free markets.  Her call to remember “the good that government can do” and her derisive comments about the “libertarian right”, were seen by some members of her party as a direct attack on their beliefs.

So, alongside alongside claims that May’s policies amounted to fascism, there were equally inflated suggestions that she was advocating socialism.  Rhetoric that tilted leftward on the economy and rightward on immigration made the implication of ‘national socialism’ irresistible to some commentators.  Tip-toeing around all that hyperbole, the speech combined some of the new populism affecting politics, with more traditional conservative themes.           

It is highly unlikely that Theresa May’s Tories will regulate companies heavily.  She prefaced her remarks about the economy by emphasising the party’s commitment to free markets.  The government’s slim majority in the House of Commons, and the hostility of a significant number of Conservatives, would prevent May from introducing a significant programme of regulation, even if that is what she intended.

There may be some limited measures aimed at protecting consumers, in particular industries.  The government is already involved heavily in ensuring wider broadband provision and mobile phone signal for example, because these services are considered particularly important to the rest of the economy.  Banks may be required to ensure that interest rates for savers reflect more closely the Bank of England base rate.  There may even be some legislation, largely aesthetic, around company governance.  

The policies trailed at party conferences often disappear rapidly, because these speeches are about setting a particular tone and attracting headlines, rather than the detail around important issues.  Mrs May’s speech was designed to appeal to voters, ‘ordinary working people’ as she insisted upon calling them, who regard big businesses with suspicion and feel that top executives are frequently paid too much money. The prime minister was telling them that the Conservatives are on their side.  

That’s not to say that she won’t make another speech soon, soothing any anxieties that her words might have caused among businesses, and emphasising that the financial industry and other publicly unpopular industries are vital to the economy.  In fact that is very likely.

The idea that Mrs May is trying to place herself ‘equidistant’ between right and left is not particularly illuminating.  In my previous blog, I observed that the idea of a Tory party torn between Thatcherite free marketeers and ‘One Nation’ Conservatives is a simplification.  Broadly, market liberal ideas, the meat of Thatcherism, are taken for granted across the Conservative Party and, until relatively recently, they attracted few serious challenges across British society.

So far, Theresa May’s team has made a rather good job of reading the mood of Britain, after the EU referendum.  While the Tories’ poll ratings reflect this success, they need to deliver a coherent plan for Brexit and govern well, rather than merely echoing public opinion.

Some more excitable activists reacted to Theresa May’s defence of government and her criticisms of failing markets by alleging that she was not espousing Conservatism.  That depends whether Conservatism (big ‘C’) is still underpinned meaningfully by conservatism (small ‘c’).

British conservatives defend free markets and civil liberties, because they are a defining feature of the UK's culture and society.  However, the free market libertarian desire to strip back regulations, laws and institutions as a matter of principle is something very different from conservatism, as it is usually understood.

Classical liberalism is an undeniable, and important, aspect of the modern Conservative Party.  There are a smaller number of Tories who describe themselves as ‘libertarian’.  Almost the entire party accepts the broad thrust of Thatcherite economics, to some degree.

Perhaps Theresa May was being needlessly antagonistic when she hit out at the ‘libertarian right’.  That doesn’t mean that her speech wasn’t deeply ‘conservative’, even if some of her colleagues would like to rid the Conservative Party of the ideas she articulated.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Irish FA blameless in Team Ireland guest-list 'controversy'

There were just two days between Northern Ireland’s matches against San Marino and Germany.  Time enough for the BBC to turn into headline news a petty dispute about the Irish FA’s guest-list for the official opening of the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park.

This event took place before the San Marino game on Saturday night and included a ‘lap of legends’, with ‘some famous Northern Ireland faces’ walking round the pitch ‘accompanied by (special guests) from the football family’.  The IFA invited “well known fans”, like Carl Frampton, Jimmy Nesbitt, Gary Lightbody and others, but didn’t invite ‘Team Ireland’ Paralympians Jason Smyth and Michael McKillop.

Smyth complained about his omission on Twitter, choosing to ‘tag’ Sinn Fein deputy first minister Martin McGuinness in his tweet, while McKillop registered his public displeasure later.  

This ‘story’ raises a few questions.  Why on earth did the BBC think it important enough to lead its television news in Northern Ireland?  What kind of person deems himself a ‘legend’?  And, perhaps the least interesting: why weren’t the two athletes invited?  

Smyth believes he was overlooked because he represents Team Ireland, rather than Team GB, two of whose members took part in the lap.   The IFA blamed an ‘oversight’.  The event had been arranged quickly and there were limited spaces for 'legends' available.  

There’s no reason to doubt that explanation, particularly because the association made a later offer to add Michael McKillop to the event.  However, had it decided to exclude ‘Team Ireland’ athletes on principle, the decision would have been perfectly justifiable.

Olympic teams and Paralympic teams, with very few exceptions, represent nation states.  

Team Ireland, despite its misleading name, represents the Republic of Ireland, whose symbols it uses prominently.  Athletes from Northern Ireland qualify for inclusion by virtue of their entitlement to citizenship of the Republic of Ireland, even though there is a separate UK team, Team GB, which represents Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

It’s true that many sports, like rugby and golf, organise on an all-Ireland basis.  Though efforts to use inclusive symbols are often lacking, officially their representative teams represent both parts of the island, which spans two separate nation states.  

It would be unusual if the Irish FA were not acutely aware of these fine distinctions around sports eligibility, because it was involved in a prolonged dispute with the Football Association of Ireland (FAI), the governing body for football in the Republic of Ireland.  In recent years, the FAI persuaded young Northern Irish players to defect to its teams, for which they qualified by virtue of Republic of Ireland citizenship.

Northern Ireland is a cross-community team and the Irish FA is a cross-community organisation.  It is right and appropriate that it looks to include people from all backgrounds at its events and attempts to reflect Irish culture and symbols, but that’s not the same as recognising the symbols, teams or institutions of the Republic of Ireland.

Olympic and Paralympic sport features multiple events, and athletes from Northern Ireland find themselves representing the Republic for various reasons, which don’t always include political allegiance.  The distinction between all-Ireland teams and Republic of Ireland teams is often ignored, either deliberately or because it causes confusion.  

When Rory McIlroy stated his intention initially to compete for Team GB rather than Team Ireland at the Olympics, there were howls of outrage and copious personal abuse, because he had played previously for the Ireland golf team, organised by an all-Ireland body, the Golf Union of Ireland (GUI).  

Rory later switched his allegiance to the Republic, before deciding eventually that he wouldn’t go to the Rio games at all. Throughout the whole acrimonious discussion, it was scarcely acknowledged that the GUI was always supposed to represent both parts of the island, relying on funds from member golf clubs in both nation states.

It would be odd if the Irish Football Association, of all sporting bodies, were so cavalier about important differences.  It is not responsible for the common conflation of 'Ireland' with the 'Republic of Ireland' and 'Irish' with 'citizen of the Republic of Ireland state'.  It’s that stubborn refusal by many nationalists to accept the fact of Northern Ireland’s existence that is frequently at the root of false controversies about discrimination against Irishness.           

Friday, 23 September 2016

Irish identity grounded firmly in the UK

The Irish Times published a series of articles examining relationships between “Ireland and Britain”.  In a typically forthright piece, the paper’s columnist, Newton Emerson, writes that he does “not feel Irish in the slightest”.  He grew up in Northern Ireland at a time when direct rule made it “as British as Finchley”.  

I’m a little younger than Newton and my attitudes are slightly different.  I do consider myself Irish, but the Irishness I feel has little to do with the Republic of Ireland and it sits happily alongside my sense of Britishness.  For me, Northern Ireland is “as British as Finchley”, or Stirling, or Caerphilly, it just isn’t the same as Finchley.  

I grew up in Ballymena, Ian Paisley’s heartland, where hostility to Irish identity was not  uncommon.  After winning his first international cap, one of the town’s rugby stars, Davy Tweed, was reputed to say, “I’ve played thirty times for my country (Ulster) and once for Ireland”.  

Like Newton, many of my cultural references came from British TV, sport and popular music, but I was also highly aware of Irish literature and music.  As a teenager, in the early nineties, my favourite group was U2, and I studied the full range of Bono’s musings, as well as the contents of the band’s lyrics.
As I got older, I still enjoyed the music, but I found his political pronouncements embarrassing.  That was a journey I suspect I shared with young people from all over the island.  

At school, the fashion at the time was to teach chunks of history, rather than its broad sweep.  Some of the topics were specifically Irish and some British, but, because our pasts are so closely entwined, mostly they were relevant to both identities.  Ireland was a prominent issue for Elizabeth I and the Stuarts, while a connection with Britain dominated Irish affairs in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Where politics were concerned, like many Northern Irish youngsters who were interested in current affairs, I knew embarrassingly little about our neighbouring state.  Proper political debates were conducted at Westminster, and local government in Northern Ireland offered a grim parody, embarrassing and futile in equal measure.  I read British papers, watched the BBC news and British political programmes on TV.

I was most aware of being Irish on holiday, where i spent summers on campsites in France, mixing mainly with children from the rest of the UK.  For English, Scottish and Welsh kids, my accent meant I was Irish, and I accepted that verdict cheerfully enough.  It didn’t seem to mean my Britishness was questioned, and I remember taking part in UK vs. the rest of Europe football matches, against players from the Republic.

This upbringing shaped my political beliefs, that Northern Ireland should remain part of the UK and that Britishness accommodates Irishness, Welshness and Scottishness comfortably, as well as other identities from newer arrivals to our islands.

The Republic of Ireland purports to represent the Irish nation in its entirety, but that is not a claim that I recognise.  I’m from the part of Ireland that did not secede from the UK, and while I have certain aspects of Irishness in common with those who are not British, my Irish identity is grounded firmly in a multicultural, multinational United Kingdom.  

Thursday, 15 September 2016

There is no Brexit 'crisis' in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland’s public affairs magazine, Agenda NI, held a conference recently about the ‘Brexit crisis’. It was a clever title for the event but, almost three months after the referendum, it’s clear that there is no crisis around Brexit, and political attempts to manufacture one are not succeeding.
The exact details will be subject to complex negotiations, but Britain will leave the EU and both parts of the island of Ireland will have to adjust.
For Northern Ireland, Brexit presents specific challenges. There are anxieties about what form the Irish border might take, when it becomes a boundary between the UK and the European Union. The Republic’s ambassador in London, Dan Mulhall, told a Westminster committee last week that he is confident a ‘common travel area’, which guarantees free movement between the two countries, will be preserved.
These border arrangements pre-date membership of the EU and they complement British and southern Irish laws that ensure neither country’s citizens can be treated as ‘foreigners’ in either jurisdiction.
A victims campaigner, Raymond McCord, has challenged Brexit in the High Court, on the basis that it undermines the “peace process”. Although the case will cite clauses from the Good Friday Agreement, Mr McCord’s objections centre on a perceived threat to funding for victims of the Troubles.
It is unlikely that the court will find in his favour. The EU doesn’t form an important part of Northern Ireland’s peace settlement and the Good Friday Agreement is not a foundation-stone of the UK constitution.
The nationalist political parties, Sinn Fein and the SDLP, continue to call for a border poll on the strength of Brexit. Alongside Alliance and the Greens, nationalist MLAs have launched their own court challenge, demanding that Stormont gets to vote on Brexit in a motion of consent (which they intend to withhold).
Even so, they’re struggling to maintain the type of fury which greeted the initial referendum result. Opinion polls suggest that the issue of EU membership is unlikely to change many voters’ views on Northern Ireland’s constitutional status.
Meanwhile, the Dublin government, which opposed Brexit vocally during the referendum campaign, is embroiled in its own row with the European Commission over tax arrangements with US technology giant, Apple. The Republic’s economy is heavily dependent on trade with the UK and, now its low tax deals with foreign investors are under threat, the idea of joining Britain outside the EU doesn’t seem so outlandish.
Even the gloomy forecasts about Brexit’s effects on the economy are proving unfounded. Although the value of sterling has fallen, consumers are spending plenty of money, manufacturers’ order books are full and the hospitality sector is booming. The IMF was forced to admit that ‘turmoil’ it predicted for the financial markets has already ‘subsided’.
There’s still plenty of uncertainty about the future. The prime minister says “Brexit means Brexit”, but that phrase obscures the fact that there are several options for the UK’s status outside the EU. There is disagreement even among government ministers about the desired outcome of negotiations with Brussels.
It’s important that our local politicians think about how Brexit can work for Northern Ireland and which arrangements suit us best. That includes making sure that goods and people can move across the Irish border quickly and easily, while we maintain close relations with our nearest neighbour. It also means considering how PEACE monies and other types of funding can best be replaced outside the EU.
Whether we like it or not Brexit is happening. It might involve some changes, but it won’t cause a crisis, it won’t derail the ‘peace process’ and it won’t collapse the economy. Northern Ireland’s policy makers have a duty to make the best of it, rather than stirring up panic or taking frivolous actions in the law courts.