Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Ditch the dogma - do the deal

In the imagination of remainers, the Tory European Research Group is a cadre of irreconcilable Brexit ultras, determined to wrench the UK from the EU in chaotic fashion. It’s ironic then, that the ERG’s latest paper is one of the calmest contributions to the Irish border debate, delivering low-key, rather technical solutions to practical problems raised by the frontier, rather than overheated rhetoric.

The document draws heavily on the work of Dr Graham Gudgin, the Cambridge University academic who has examined forensically Brexit’s potential impact in Ireland at the think-tank, Policy Exchange. The audience at its publication included two former secretaries of state for Northern Ireland, Owen Paterson and Theresa Villiers, as well as Lord Trimble, unionist architect of the Belfast Agreement.

The ERG’s aim in writing this paper was fairly straight-forward. Come up with a set of arrangements that will avoid the need for new physical checks and infrastructure at the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, without compromising the integrity of the customs union or the single market and without requiring the UK or parts of the UK to remain under the auspices of Brussels.

The broader purpose is to allow the two sides in the Brexit negotiations to get round the Irish road-block and start putting together a wide-ranging free trade agreement between the UK and the EU.

Unfortunately, the document was always likely to get a hostile reception, because the border question is no longer really about solving practical problems. Northern Ireland and its peace process are being exploited shamelessly to promote competing visions of Brexit.

The European Commission’s negotiating strategy is founded on portraying Britain’s departure from the EU as a binary choice between leaving the single market and the customs union or maintaining a soft border. Theresa May assisted Brussels by offering an unilateral commitment before talks began that there would be no additional checks or technology on the Irish frontier, under any circumstances. 
That has allowed Michel Barnier to maintain that, if her government insists on a meaningful Brexit, then it must agree to an internal UK border in the Irish Sea, while Northern Ireland must remain subject to the EU’s rules and customs regime.

For her part, the prime minister has used Brussels’ uncompromising stance to promote her Chequers’ plan for a diluted form of Brexit. Theresa May claims that the UK must accept a ‘common rulebook’ with the EU on goods and agriculture, in order to avoid an internal frontier. She even went so far as to say that anything that undermines a ‘seamless border’ on the island of Ireland is a “breach of the spirit of the Belfast Agreement.”

It was particularly disappointing to hear the prime minister join the growing number of culprits who have made erroneous claims about the Good Friday deal, since the EU referendum result. The deranged peer, Lord Adonis, claimed this week that certain types of Brexit would be “illegal” under the accord. None of these people can ever cite the text to support their arguments, whereas Lord Trimble, who knows the Belfast Agreement back to front, points out that the main threat to its central ‘principle of consent’ is an Irish Sea border.

If the ERG’s document has a flaw, it’s that it takes the various arguments about Ireland at face value. It attempts to address Mr Barnier’s claims that the single market cannot be protected, unless Northern Ireland remains under its tutelage. It shows Theresa May that Chequers is not the only way to keep trade flowing freely, both north to south and east to west.

In truth, neither the Irish border nor the Belfast Agreement form an impediment to any form of Brexit. The Chequers’ proposals must stand on their own merit and be weighed against the ERG’s ideas for a looser arrangement, based on a free trade agreement. It’s time for all sides to ditch the dogma around Ireland and get on with brokering a deal.

First published at This Union and Think Scotland.

Friday, 17 August 2018

Russia staged the best World Cup of modern times

The bitterness when Russia pipped England in the race to stage the World Cup was palpable.

Very soon, there were incessant implications that the tournament would be a disaster and countless attempts to organise a boycott on flimsy pretexts. Nick Clegg was one of the quickest out of the blocks, demanding British teams refuse to participate in protest at the Kremlin’s insistence on confronting Jihadist maniacs in Syria.

Russia’s stubbornly independent foreign policy and resistance to western groupthink has resulted in it being treated as a pariah. Yet it confounded its critics by staging the most entertaining World Cup in living memory and proved itself an exceptional host. From the opening ceremony to the trophy presentation, which took place in a near biblical rainstorm, Russia 2018 was an unqualified triumph.

The conspiracy theorists will allege that Vladimir Putin stage-managed the event carefully in order to cultivate a positive image of his country (as if micromanaging the experiences of hundreds of thousands of football supporters and thousands of journalists were a simple thing or even remotely possible). In reality, Russia embraced the carnival of football and showed itself to be far from the forbidding place portrayed by Russophobic cliche.

The country is routinely demonised on a range of topics and the thread that links them is a refusal to try to understand the Russian point of view or accept any complication or nuance. Most blatantly, the war with Georgia is depicted as a result of aggression by Moscow, even though the EU’s fact-finding report conceded that it was started by former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili’s decision to shell and then invade South Ossetia.

After such a flagrant misrepresentation, is it surprising that Russia often treats western governments with hostility and mistrust?

Its attitude was vindicated some years later, when US and EU meddling in Ukraine helped provoke a populist uprising that unseated a democratically elected president. The civil war that ensued was again portrayed in the west as simply an outcome of Russian aggression, without any examination of the views of Russian speakers and Russian citizens in eastern and southern Ukraine.

Many western commentators, who are accustomed only to looking for signs of ‘progress’ toward liberal democracy and freer markets or backsliding away from that ideal, have profound difficulty understanding Vladimir Putin’s uniquely Russian conservatism. In particular, they find it impossible to accept the Kremlin’s position on homosexuality, which is not tolerant, but reflects the influence of the Orthodox Church and the mood of the country’s people.

Attitudes to sexuality have changed at dizzying pace over a short period of time. We forgot, almost instantly, how fiercely these matters were contested and the controversy they created in the UK, the US and Europe.

Putin pacified the strife-torn, bandit-ridden province of Chechnya, by contracting a messy deal with the thuggish warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, but because Kadyrov adheres to the unpleasant interpretation of Islam that has seen gay people mistreated across the Muslim world, we’re asked to believe that it is a result of Putin’s homophobic policies.

Throughout his tenure, the president and former prime minister has prioritised economic and political stability rather than ideology. His state-building schemes may seem undemocratic, but they have created a stronger, steadier, more affluent country. He centralised power, where previously it had been dispersed unevenly across a baffling array of republics and regions, rendering Russia practically ungovernable.

Putin took over a state without an agreed flag, without words to its national anthem and struggling to establish a sense of shared purpose among its people. He will leave to his successor a powerful, diverse nation, spanning practically endless ethnicities and cultures, bound together by a strong sense of common citizenship.

This was the Russia that was equipped to hold the best World Cup of modern times.

Thursday, 31 May 2018

Corbyn will never be trusted on Northern Ireland

Jeremy Corbyn’s first visit to Northern Ireland as leader of the opposition was never likely to be greeted with enthusiasm by unionists. Hardly anyone is gullible enough to fall for his attempts to explain away decades of overt sympathy for the IRA. He retains links to Sinn Fein’s leaders and, just days ago, he reaffirmed his preference for a ‘united Ireland’, which, his spokesman says, “the majority of those people across the island” want to see.

Even before Corbyn arrived in Belfast last week, his itinerary generated controversy.

The Labour leader did not meet local members of his own party, who have been involved in a protracted struggle with their leadership to stand candidates in Northern Ireland elections. They argue that voters deserve ‘equal citizenship’ and the chance to vote for parties that can form the UK government, but they’re unlikely to persuade Corbyn, who hasn’t renounced his belief that the British state is an occupying force in Ireland.

He also declined to meet victims of terrorism, claiming that, by the time the idea was suggested, it was too late to organise. The DUP doesn’t agree, saying that it proposed a meeting with victims groups in Derry almost two weeks before his visit took place.

Then there was Corbyn’s decision to deliver a keynote speech at Queen’s University, Belfast.
In 1983, the unionist politician and law lecturer, Edgar Graham, was murdered at the university by the IRA. Sylvia Hermon, who also worked in the law school at the time and is now MP for North Down, was in the student union when the death was announced and was revolted to hear students cheer news of the murder.

The killing was particularly traumatic for unionists, because Graham was blatantly targeted due to his political beliefs and it hardened a perception that Belfast’s main university had become a hostile, potentially dangerous place for those who saw themselves as British.

For an inveterate ally of physical force republicans, like Corbyn, Queen’s was potentially a provocative venue for a high-profile address. But, then again, where in Northern Ireland could he speak that hasn’t been touched by the blood-lust of his fellow-travellers in the IRA?

Maybe it was for exactly that reason that the substance of Corbyn’s remarks were rather less republican in flavour than some had expected.

Although he said he backs the idea of a border poll on Northern Ireland’s constitutional future, he denied that he is calling for one and said that he would not campaign actively for Irish unity were one called.

While he supported recalling the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference (BIIC) — a vehicle for cooperation between London and Dublin, set up by the Good Friday Agreement — he rejected Sinn Fein’s demand for this body to assume ‘joint authority’ over devolved matters, in the absence of a functioning Executive or Assembly.

When he was asked whether the BIIC should make decisions normally taken in Stormont, Corbyn responded, “it can’t do that constitutionally”. He’s absolutely right, but that hasn’t stopped his republican friends, and even Leo Varadkar, implying that the conference could act as a type of interim government.

Corbyn also ruled out the notion that there might be an “effective border” in the Irish Sea, which is usually depicted as an unavoidable feature of the ‘special status’ for Northern Ireland sought by nationalists and the Irish government. Labour’s position is that it will agree a new customs union with the EU, with the effect that no ‘hard border’ is needed, yet informed commentators have pointed out that membership of the single market is the most influential factor when it comes to frictionless trade, rather than customs arrangements.

Corbyn did hearten some liberal unionists genuinely by taking time to visit Lagan College, which at its foundation in 1981 was Northern Ireland’s first integrated school. Politicians from the mainland, and farther afield, frequently take time to support integrated schools when they come to the province, but Sinn Fein is sceptical about children learning together.

The republican party, like hardline unionists in the DUP, prefers to emphasise ‘shared education’, which is poorly defined and usually involves some kind of cooperation between segregated schools, rather than wholehearted integration. Indeed, Sinn Fein promotes a micro-sector of separate Irish language schools, that threaten to fracture still further Northern Ireland’s already deeply divided education system.

It was a tactful move by the Labour team to signal a preference for integration instead.

Yet, a well choreographed visit to Northern Ireland and some diplomatic language are unlikely to reassure unionists or make Corbyn look more like a potential prime minister for the whole country. The fact that he’s promised not to campaign actively for a united Ireland, in the event of a border poll, is only remarkable because of the disdain he has expressed previously for Northern Ireland’s British status.

Corbyn also recently denied claims by the SNP MP, Mhairi Black, that he supported Scottish independence. But then he would say that, wouldn’t he?

There’s really very little that Corbyn can do to make a lifetime of comradeship with violent republicans any less deplorable. Even if it weren’t for this grisly history, the Labour Leader still openly supports the break-up of the nation state whose government he aspires to lead.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Perpetual crisis likely unless unionism finds positive voice

This article was published first in the News Letter, 21 February 2018.

It may have been Sinn Fein that withdrew from the executive and refused to share power for thirteen months, but the way last week’s talks collapsed allowed blame to be pinned squarely on the DUP. The party has to take responsibility for communicating its position clumsily, but the balance of criticism has been grossly unfair.

After all, what exactly was the DUP supposed to do in the circumstances?

The latest impasse cannot be viewed in isolation. Though to listen to Northern Ireland’s increasingly vocal and partisan cohort of nationalist commentators, you’d think that every new political stand-off at Stormont was a unique and novel affront by unionists.

The truth is that Sinn Fein has used the same tactics many times before. Republicans habitually collapse power-sharing, create a crisis and then allow demands to build that unionists should accommodate them by agreeing some sort of compromise.

If Arlene Foster pushed through an Irish Language Act, against the wishes of most pro-Union voters, why on earth wouldn’t Sinn Fein be back with a fresh shopping-list, 6 months, a year or 2 years later?

We’ve not seen the text of the agreement that the two parties supposedly came so close to signing, but none of the rumoured contents would have made Stormont any more stable or less prone to collapse. Nor was the Irish language act that Sinn Fein says was agreed moderate or reasonable. It would have changed Northern Ireland profoundly and for the worse.

If Gaelic were permitted in courts, it could only ever be used for scurrilous or political reasons. No-one who speaks Irish is remotely disadvantaged by proceedings taking place in English and a court of law is a place of business, where utility is paramount, not an arena to promote cultural aspirations.

Likewise, Northern Ireland’s political system is already stuffed with expensive commissioners, all of whom need offices and staff. The ‘advocacy’ function of these posts means that they’re always trying to expand their remits, in order to justify their existence.

Establishing an Irish Language Commission would ensure that the demands of the language lobby would never be satisfied. If our society is ever to function properly, we need to get rid of ombudsmen and commissioners, not add more.

You can rhyme off the various talks and agreements, Stormont House, Fresh Start, the reboot of Fresh Start, Hillsborough, all the way back to St Andrews, which took the Belfast Agreement and made it incomparably worse.

Whatever the apparent cause, they’ve all followed a similar pattern, once negotiations got started. Even when it was the DUP that withdrew from the Executive, because the police accused Sinn Fein’s paramilitary wing of murder back in 2015, we ended up with weeks of republican demands over welfare and legacy, which culminated in the Fresh Start Agreement.

Throughout all these crises, unionists have struggled to articulate their case and have been prone to taking the blame, but the current log-jam is the most dangerous yet for unionism. There is a swelling contingent of liberal remainers across the UK who are so steaming mad that they’re quite prepared to make common cause with nationalists and the Irish government to try to stop or dilute Brexit.

They hate the DUP, its staunchly pro-leave views and its alliance with the Conservative government, with an ardour that even unionists who voted ‘remain’ struggle to accept or understand.

It’s hard to sympathise with that party entirely, because it created many of the problems unionism now faces. When it negotiated the St Andrews Agreement in 2007, it turned a blind eye to government commitments on the Irish language and diluted the competitive element of Northern Irish politics, probably deliberately, by changing the mechanism for nominating the first minister.

It’s impossible to undo recent history or ignore electoral arithmetic, so unionists are left to navigate the situation as it confronts them.

One quite understandable response is fury, because unionism continues to be demonised, even though nationalism has allowed itself to be dominated by leaders who take their direction straight from the Felons’ Club of former IRA prisoners.

Yet anger won’t solve anything by itself.

Unionism is in real trouble if it can’t find a positive, upbeat way to promote its values and challenge the sense that Northern Ireland is in perpetual crisis. And if Stormont is eventually restored, it will certainly crash again unless unionists broker a deal that reforms the institutions, so that they cannot be continually collapsed and politics here become competitive again.  

Friday, 12 January 2018

Unionists and republicans aren't equally to blame for crisis

In his News Letter column (1 January), Alex Kane says he gets accused of “lazy analysis” when he blames both the DUP and Sinn Fein for the lack of power-sharing at Stormont. I don’t think Alex’s analysis is lazy, but I can’t agree with his implication that the two parties are equally responsible for the breakdown of devolved government.

Undoubtedly, the DUP deserves criticism for its conduct in the Assembly. Its role in the RHI scandal was an indictment of its attitude to tax-payers’ money and it gave Sinn Fein a pretext to pull down the Executive. Equally, the party’s intransigence on some issues has allowed republicans to pose as progressives and attract sympathy from naive young liberals.

Yet it’s glaringly obvious that the DUP didn’t collapse government and hasn’t prevented it from being reformed. Indeed, the party has even shown signs that it’s prepared to be flexible on parts of the list of sanctimonious demands, or ‘red-lines’, set out by Sinn Fein.

When commentators try to decode what’s happening at Stormont Castle, it’s easy to get distracted by the tactics of deal-making and miss the brazen lies and distortions that constitute the entire republican strategy.

In his column, Alex didn’t really look at any of the themes of Sinn Fein’s case for refusing to share power with the DUP.

You could summarise them broadly in three parts. An untruthful claim that nationalists are not accorded “rights” and “equality”, a shameful attempt to focus Troubles’ “legacy” investigations on deaths caused by the state rather than the overwhelming majority of murders committed by the IRA and a stubborn insistence on a standalone Irish Language Act (not a face-saving ‘Culture Act’ as the DUP might prefer).

In addition, Sinn Fein has decided to advocate gay marriage, transparently so that it can portray unionists as old-fashioned and unreasonable. While, as a backdrop, nationalists won’t accept Northern Ireland’s entitlement as a full part of the UK to leave the EU with the rest of the country.

Surely it's important to look, even briefly, at all this context and offer an opinion on the merit of these republican positions?   

For its part, the DUP is willing to go back into government tomorrow with unrepentant murders and apologists for murder, who have repeatedly crashed power-sharing at the least excuse, to try to wheedle selfish concessions from political opponents and the government. What is blameworthy in making it difficult for them to do the same thing again?

It’s important for commentators, particularly unionist commentators, to criticise parties that fail to serve their voters properly, promote the Union effectively and tackle issues sensibly. It’s something else to give the impression that the DUP and Sinn Fein are equally to blame for what has happened over the past year, particularly when the media is awash with pundits who are eager to endorse republican claims.

Alex says that Northern Ireland needs ‘stable government’, which is not contestable. He doesn’t say whether he thinks that Stormont should provide that government.

If a deal would create another Executive that ducks important decisions, wastes public money and can be collapsed any time Sinn Fein doesn’t get its way, then, regrettably, direct rule is currently the more palatable option.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Writing elsewhere (mainly about Brexit)

If you follow this blog but don't bother with Twitter and other social media, you may have missed some of my more recent articles.

As phase 1 of the Brexit negotiations struggled to a slightly chaotic conclusion, I looked at some of the features of an emerging deal, at Conservative Home.

I argued that 'convergence', which has subsequently become 'alignment', was not necessarily the same as membership of the Customs Union or Single Market.

"All the fundamentals of Britain’s final deal with Brussels should apply equally across all its regions.  But if there are parts of the economy that benefit from harmonising regulations with the EU, without compromising the United Kingdom’s integrity, we should be clever and pragmatic enough to show some flexibility."

At the website, Reaction,  I examined how a deal could affect the 'principle of consent', which underpins the Good Friday Agreement. The Irish government's attitude to consent remains a concern for unionists, as Simon Coveney continues to imply that 'joint sovereignty' in Northern Ireland could be the result of any failure to revive power-sharing.

"despite a tendency to mention the agreement as if it were a sacred text (while rarely citing specific clauses), nationalist Ireland has never quite accepted the consequences of its central tenet, the ‘principle of consent’. This principle determines that the people of Northern Ireland will decide whether their constitutional future lies in the United Kingdom, or a thirty-two county Irish republic.

It’s unlikely that Ireland’s government is actually implementing a dastardly master-plan to loosen the province’s ties with the rest of the UK and edge it toward a united Ireland. Dublin’s foreign minister and deputy PM, Simon Coveney, previously stated that he wants to see Irish unity within his ‘political lifetime’, but last week assured readers of the staunchly unionist News Letter that, “there is nothing (in Ireland’s Brexit negotiating position) which remotely threatens Northern Ireland’s constitutional status”.

Nonetheless, the Irish government behaves as if Britain’s authority over a part of its own territory were heavily qualified."

After Britain and the EU finally published their 'joint report' into the phase 1 negotiations, I looked at the outcome, at CapX.

For remainers, and even for some less ideological Brexiters, the idea that the UK may find itself compelled to have a closer relationship with the EU has a definite appeal. The best arguments to stay in the Union always focussed on the potential difficulties, complications and disruptions of leaving, rather than the merits of its institutions or its wider political mission. 

Perhaps the simplest means of making these problems go away is to be nudged and cajoled gradually into remaining closely aligned with Brussels’ market and its rules.

More bullish proponents of an unfettered, free-trading Global Britain won’t be persuaded that Brexit should be allowed to evolve like this into something more consensual. They’ll be deeply angry if a slice of Irish fudge restricts the UK’s ability to determine its future relationship with the EU, in phase 2 of the negotiations.


Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Border with GB would be a massive betrayal

Last week, the veteran Tory Europhile, Ken Clarke, argued that if the UK leaves the EU Customs Union the best solution “is to have a border down the Irish Sea”. His intervention appalled unionists and delighted nationalists, who - in connivance with the Alliance Party - have been using Brexit to try to loosen Northern Ireland’s ties with Great Britain and edge it closer to the Republic of Ireland.

Mr Clarke has made many constructive arguments over the years, from the moderate wing of the Conservatives, but his comments about Northern Ireland have been pitifully few and often betrayed a patronising disdain for this part of the UK. After his former party leader, David Cameron, formed an electoral pact with Ulster Unionists, Clarke told the Daily Telegraph, “you can always do a deal with an Ulsterman, but it’s not the way to run a modern, sophisticated society”.

Nationalists will applaud anyone who supports their schemes to dilute Northern Ireland’s position in the UK. It is Alliance’s demands that we stay in the Customs Union, irrespective of what happens in Great Britain, which are much more insidious and demand the strongest response from unionists.

The party’s stance on the constitutional issue has recently become one of awkward neutrality. Yet its thinking has become so disordered by Brexit that it’s prepared to undermine the principle of consent, risk the Northern Ireland economy and flirt with separatism, in order to resist the inevitable.

Alliance draws its support overwhelmingly from the east of the province, where economic and social links to the rest of the UK are strongest. Traditionally its supporters are in favour of the Union, but they’re often comfortably off, middle-class people, who view some of the more confrontational aspects of local politics with distaste and prefer to avoid the label ‘unionist’.

If they don’t work in the public sector, they’re likely to own or be employed by companies that do the vast majority of their business with the rest of the UK. They probably work and socialise with friends or family from the rest of the country and they may have children who live in Great Britain or attend universities there. In other words, these are some of the voters who would be affected most by internal UK border controls.    

Do they realise that their representatives are prepared to make it more difficult for them to work and travel within their own country, in order to prioritise connections with the Republic of Ireland? If that hasn’t yet been explained to them properly, or the deadening effects it could have on their prosperity, then unionist parties should not rest until every potential Alliance voter is aware of the magnitude of what what that party is proposing.

The prospect of any arrangement or ‘special status’ that keeps Northern Ireland in the Customs Union while the rest of the UK leaves is a serious threat to the Union that shouldn’t be underestimated. Nationalists are pushing the idea precisely because it would bind us more closely to the Republic and weaken our links with the rest of the UK significantly.

The current government is vanishingly unlikely to accept a border at the Irish Sea while it relies on DUP votes and faces an ongoing separatist challenge in Scotland. However, the Conservative administration is weak and, if Jeremy Corbyn were prime minister, he’d certainly be more receptive to nationalist demands, particular if they’re given a cross-community veneer by Alliance’s collusion. Things can change quickly in such a volatile political climate.

That’s why unionists must make absolutely sure this type of ‘special status’ gains no momentum. If an internal border with the rest of the UK were imposed on Northern Ireland, it would represent a betrayal to make the Anglo-Irish Agreement look trivial in comparison.

Friday, 24 November 2017

May's Brexit missed opportunity with Russia

When Theresa May’s speechwriters pondered this year’s keynote address to the Lord Mayor’s Banquet, they couldn’t have been short of potential material.

Businesses and their representative organisations daily pour over every utterance from the Prime Minister and her colleagues, in an attempt to decode how the Brexit negotiations might progress. The Conservative government appears to be riven with infighting and, if it falls, Labour and Jeremy Corbyn threaten to upend British society and the existing economic order. The chancellor continues to wrestle with the insoluble algebra of keeping unemployment low and cutting the deficit, while boosting productivity and raising wages.  

That’s probably why Mrs May’s speech largely avoided each of these big issues and instead reached for a series of well worn accusations, directed against Russia. It was the usual thing; espionage, destabilising eastern European states, weaponising information. “I have a very simple message for Russia”, the Prime Minister warned, “we know what you are doing and you will not succeed”.

Of course, it was clear what Theresa May was doing as well. Rather than address the difficulties and controversies facing her government, she decided to invoke and exaggerate a perceived external threat.

The evidence that Russia has meddled to any effect in western elections is strikingly flimsy and elusive. There’s always a point at which the supposed dossiers and reports require a leap of faith. Just trust us, we’re the experts and we know what we’re talking about.

The supposed intelligence often cites mischievous, but relatively open, coverage carried by Sputnik or RT. Yes, we know that the Kremlin pays for these outlets and that their editorial line is essentially hostile to the western establishment, but their influence is marginal and the US and the UK also subsidise journalism that is hostile to Russia.

As for destabilising neighbouring states, Putin certainly acted opportunistically when his government annexed Crimea, but the subtleties of that situation and the subsequent war in eastern Ukraine are airbrushed by the British government and media.

Mrs May spoke again about ‘hostile’ Russia as she travelled to the Eastern Partnership summit between the EU and some of its neighbours from the former Soviet bloc. Presumably she hopes to persuade Brussels that Britain must remain central to securing Europe’s safety, after it leaves the European Union.

The UK could use Brexit as an opportunity to pursue a genuinely independent foreign policy guided by its own interests and by the FCO’s diplomatic expertise. It could try to mend its frayed relationships with Moscow, build economic ties and, in time, exert a constructive influence on Russian governance.   

Instead, the Prime Minister looks like she wants to use Russia to scare people, distract from Brexit and posture to the EU 27. How disappointing and what a missed opportunity.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Only irrational GAWA would support the Republic

Losing the World Cup Play-Off to a disputed penalty goal was a gut-wrenching experience for Northern Ireland fans. The faithful supporters who returned from Basel earlier this week might have expected to come home to a country commiserating with its team and reflecting on its achievements, through regional TV, radio and newspapers.

Instead they were faced with provocative demands to back the Republic in its play-off match against Denmark and accusations of sectarianism, based on information that was at least a generation out of date.

The Green and White Army weren’t surprised. They’re used to facing ill-disguised hostility, ignorance and a lack of empathy from sections of the media, including public service broadcasters, whose remit is supposed to be Northern Ireland alone.

The supporters’ hurt feelings are understandable, but do some of their critics have a point? For instance, should Northern Ireland fans show more generosity and cheer on the country country to their south?

The question not only completely misunderstands the nature of football rivalry; it willfully ignores recent history between the two teams and the current situation as regards player eligibility.

Under highly controversial FIFA rules, the Republic of Ireland is entitled to pick footballers from across the island, and for a number of years its governing body, the FAI, has aggressively recruited young players who are already in the Northern Ireland youth setup.

The consequences are easy to understand and add up to a very simple equation. If the Republic team performs more successfully than Northern Ireland, the share of media attention it commands will increase (particularly north of the border) and players and spectators will head south.

When journalists. politicians and other commentators pompously demand that the Green and White Army supports its neighbours in a World Cup play-off, they’re asking fans to do something that’s blatantly detrimental to their team. More than that - no-one who genuinely has Northern Ireland’s interests at the forefront of their mind could possibly back the Republic in such a critical game.

They might have other motives for making that decision, but the welfare of the IFA’s team is not one of them.

Why should supporters act irrationally, against their own interests, just because people who want to prove their own worthiness, and in whose lives football is usually just a minor background noise, say they should? Is it any wonder the GAWA reacts to this chatter with utter disdain?  

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Is the UUP dying?

The UUP last generated energy and excitement when it formed an electoral pact with the Conservatives. Can its new leader find another 'big idea' to inspire an electoral revival, or is the party slowly dying? 

A couple of weekends ago, the UUP held its annual conference. For a party that now struggles to command media attention, it was a particularly important event, because the BBC covered its leader’s speech live and aired a party political broadcast the previous evening.

It's just six months since Robin Swann took over from Mike Nesbitt and then immediately faced a general election, which saw the UUP lose its two Westminster seats. At the conference in Armagh, the Ulster Unionists’ new leader had an opportunity to explain his brand of unionism and most of the coverage focussed on two policies and two buzzwords contained in Mr Swann’s speech.

The UUP opposed the idea that an Irish Language Act is needed in Northern Ireland and it supported changing the way an Executive is formed at Stormont, arguing that ministers should make up a voluntary rather than a mandatory coalition. Swann also described his party as ‘radical moderates’ and claimed they articulate something called ‘new unionism’, though commentators soon pointed out that he didn’t explain what either of these terms meant.

There is nothing particularly wrong with any of these positions and phrases, but they’re not enough to define the party’s purpose or inspire its recovery in elections. Voluntary coalition is a laudable aim, but it’s been discussed for years, and institutional reform is unlikely to excite potential voters.

Likewise, an Irish Language Act is potentially divisive and could change Northern Ireland very profoundly, but opposing it is not a political programme. And while ‘radical moderates’ and ‘new unionism’ are catchy phrases, they’re unoriginal and could mean almost anything.

It would be desperately harsh at this stage to judge Robin Swann for not delivering a ‘big idea’ that finally makes Ulster Unionism relevant to the electorate again. His two predecessors, Mike Nesbitt and Tom Elliott, struggled for a combined total of seven years to explain what the UUP is all about, how it differs from the DUP and why the public should support it.

The Ulster Unionists last generated energy and excitement outside their own party when they formed an electoral pact with the Conservatives, under Sir Reg Empey's leadership.   

‘UCUNF’ was attacked and mocked by its opponents and critics, precisely because it had potential to change politics in Northern Ireland. The abuse it took from the DUP was particularly vehement, because that party was worried that the Ulster Unionists had finally found a way to challenge its dominance.

It didn’t help that UCUNF was mismanaged from the start. The UUP was unwieldy, undisciplined and contained influential members who were determined to sabotage the pact.

A prominent saboteur was the party’s MP, Sylvia Hermon, the plummy North Down ‘Lady’ who swanned around church halls and fetes in her constituency like she’d been raised in the Shires, but told anyone who would listen, "I am not a Tory”. Ironically, many of her voters were convinced that she was a Conservative by instinct, and wouldn’t hear differently, according to those who campaigned against her.   

While she stayed away from the UUP conference in 2009, ostentatiously walking her dog on Ballyholme beach instead, Michael McGimpsey delivered a speech lauding historical Labour figures, while the Conservatives’ William Hague waited to address the party.

That tension came from representatives who considered themselves ‘centre-left’. But for other UUP figures, David Cameron’s Conservatives were not nearly right wing enough. David McNarry, who later joined UKIP, told an audience of Orange Order members that the Tories were ‘wide-boy liberalistas’.

Some Ulster Unionists actively opposed UCUNF, some of their hearts just weren’t in it and yet more saw the deal as little more than a convenient gimmick to get votes. There were constant disagreements between the party and Conservative activists in Northern Ireland, who were often treated like an inconvenient nuisance, rather than genuine political partners.

UCUNF performed strongly in the 2009 European Parliamentary election, but after a series of controversies and rows about candidate selection, it didn’t win any seats in the 2010 General Election. In comparison to some subsequent campaigns the result was not as bad as it was portrayed - the pact claimed more than fifteen per cent of the vote, without standing in Fermanagh South Tyrone - but no MPs meant that, without a doubt, it had failed.

The UUP didn’t ditch the Conservative deal officially, perhaps because Jim Nicholson MEP had been elected on a joint ticket, and preferred to let it fizzle out. Initially, the Tories seemed keener to keep UCUNF alive, but, when it became clear that the Ulster Unionists wanted to keep their options open without making any further commitments, the decision was taken to relaunch the Northern Ireland Conservatives instead. A letter from the Tory chairman, Lord Feldman, demanded that the UUP disband to join the repackaged NI Conservatives and that signalled the end of the pact.

After a rather bitter break-up, it was understandable that most activists, from either party, remembered UCUNF with little fondness. None of which means that it had no merit or that it had been a bad strategy.

This was one of the few initiatives from unionists that had a chance of binding Northern Ireland more closely to the political life of the rest of the nation. At its best, it was inspired by bold thinking and big ideas about the future of the United Kingdom. At its worst, it was disfigured by party political bickering and petty rivalries.

That moment has passed, and unfortunately I don’t think, as my friend Ben Lowry speculated on a recent BBC Talkback programme, that the relationship between the UUP and the Conservatives can be repaired. The Tories now have a much more tangible need for support at Westminster from ten DUP MPs, whose votes are required if the government is to deliver Brexit, set a budget and prevent Jeremy Corbyn from becoming Prime Minister.

The Ulster Unionists could only ever hope to become distant junior partners in a broader Conservative & unionist coalition.

With that option closed down, at least for the foreseeable future, it’s hard to see what the UUP’s next ‘big idea’ might be. Mike Nesbitt came closest to redefining the party when he tried to forge a broad, cross-community alliance against DUP / Sinn Fein government, by forming an official opposition to the Executive and making overtures to the SDLP.

His efforts were undermined by a cool response from Colum Eastwood, the nationalist party’s attempts to use Brexit to provoke a border poll and his own refusal to rule out future pacts with the DUP. Now, there is no Northern Ireland Executive, never mind an official opposition, and if the current, endless talks do result in a deal, it’s unclear whether the Ulster Unionists will nominate a minister at Stormont.            

Perhaps Robin Swann, or another leader, will enable the UUP to finally rediscover its sense of purpose and mastermind a renaissance. Ruth Davidson and the Scottish Conservatives have shown that inspired leadership, and changes in the political landscape, can make the most unlikely revivals possible.

Equally, the Ulster Unionists may never again rekindle the initial hope and excitement created by UCUNF - the Conservatives and Unionists.  That stillborn revolution may yet be one of the tragic later chapters in the story of a dying political party.