Monday, 22 May 2017

A small 'c' conservative manifesto

Previously, I wrote that Theresa May’s political instincts are ‘deeply conservative’, even if they don’t resonate with all of her colleagues in the Conservative Party .  The snap general election provides an early, rather unexpected opportunity for the prime minister to articulate her beliefs in a manifesto for government.

The document confirms that Mrs May thinks of herself as a ‘one nation’ Tory, rather than identifying with the more libertarian strain of thinking that animates many modern Conservatives.  Labour and other critics will dispute how specific policies might work in the real world, but we can tell from the tone of the manifesto how the prime minister wants the public to view her party.

At the last general election, Ed Miliband pinched the ‘one nation’ label for the Labour Party, and rather than stealing it back, Theresa May chooses to talk about “mainstream government” and “mainstream Britain”.  The language is different, but the sentiment is the same.  The PM is expressing her desire to bring people together and govern in the interests of a broad section of society.   

That means talking about the power of government to make a difference, rather than assuming that interference and regulation are always negative.  Mrs May expresses the belief that markets should be controlled and she has pledged, for example, that energy prices will be capped, which is a departure from recent Conservative orthodoxy.

The most controversial part of the manifesto deals with social care and it has already prompted a partial rethink.  The idea that people’s ability to pay should be assessed with reference to their total wealth, including their ownership of property, is something that left-wing parties have called for as a matter of principle.  That is the essence of the Tories’ plans, which suggest that costs could be recouped from anyone who owns a house valued at more than £100,000.

The threshold is rather low and the policy does mean that people who don’t save and invest for their old age are rewarded with free care.  That is the difficulty at the heart of any means test.  The fact that the total cost is now likely to be capped merely means that those with modest savings and property are likely to be hit hardest.  

Still, no other party has yet made a credible attempt to solve the problems presented by an ageing population.  At the moment, the NHS is asked to accommodate older people in hospitals who should be in their own homes or in other facilities, because care packages are not available.        

You can call it ‘red Toryism’, ‘one nation Conservatism’ or ‘mainstream government’, but Theresa May’s scepticism about immigration and willingness to interfere in markets is a deeply conservative (small ‘c’) set of ideas. Her care policy is controversial and may even be wrong, but there are mounting problems in this area for which no political party has yet devised a convincing answer.  

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Why is The Spectator commissioning biased articles about Northern Ireland?

The Spectator is Britain’s most recognisable conservative magazine.  Despite reflecting a range of opinion on the EU during the referendum campaign, it finally articulated the case that the UK should leave.  

It’s all the more puzzling then, that the magazine’s latest articles about Northern Ireland have amounted to little more than nationalist opinion pieces, launching patchily argued attacks on Brexit and the Conservative Party.  

Recent Spectator content on Northern Ireland has been commissioned from a freelance journalist called Siobhan Fenton.  Previously, she apparently spent a spell as a ‘parliamentary assistant based in Belfast’.  In her biography, she doesn’t reveal which party she worked for.  She now contributes prolifically to The Guardian, The Independent and the New Statesmen, where hostility to unionism is not uncommon, but The Spectator is more surprising.

It’s not illegitimate or even undesirable to write with a political slant, but, especially when your articles are presented as features or analysis, they’re expected at least to aspire to explain different points of view and reflect a version of reality that is recognisable.

A brief look at some of her recent work shows that Ms Fenton is not bound by these constraints.  
Her latest piece for The Spectator reports that Theresa May received a hostile reception during a visit to the Balmoral Show, just outside Belfast.  The author bases her assertion, not on eyewitness accounts, still less upon her own attendance at the show, but rather on an aggressive press release from John O’Dowd of Sinn Fein, that accused the prime minister of ‘breathtaking arrogance’ for visiting Northern Ireland.

Think about that for a moment.  The public mood in Northern Ireland was gauged by citing a vicious, anti-British diatribe from a republican politician.  It might pass for journalism in An Phoblacht, or even the Morning Star, but in a reputable conservative journal?

At almost the same time, Ms Fenton floated the idea in the New Statesman that the forthcoming General Election will see a ‘Sinn Fein surge’, with the party returning more MPs than the DUP.  Not a single credible political commentator in Northern Ireland, and few less than credible political commentators, would suggest that such a result result is a realistic possibility.  

The DUP has twice as many representatives at Westminster as Sinn Fein currently.  It’s highly improbable that Ms Fenton really believes herself that this scenario could happen, which renders her piece either wishful thinking or propaganda.

Indeed, to back up her claim, she conjures up a strange netherworld where ‘soft unionists’ vote for John FInucane, a lawyer from a notorious IRA family, in North Belfast.  She also says that the sitting MP in East Belfast, Gavin Robinson, is “likely to lose” to Alliance leader, Naomi Long.  

Even the most cursory working knowledge of Northern Ireland politics exposes the first statement as transparent nonsense and the second as highly contentious.  Long has a chance of winning the seat, but the bravest pundit wouldn’t say it’s likely.  

Freelance journalism is a tough trade, which requires a lot of work for sometimes derisory financial rewards.  I’m very loathe to attack anyone’s efforts to make a living by explaining Northern Ireland to readers in a national media where our issues are infrequently discussed.  

However, the fact that Siobhan Fenton has managed to pass off such ignorant, badly researched, transparently biased material to editors, particularly at a pro-Union magazine like The Spectator, is an indictment of their coverage of Northern Ireland.  

It’s not like there is a dearth of informed, thoughtful comment about Northern Ireland, if The Spectator and other media cared to commission it.  Ruth Dudley Edwards has written frequently for the magazine.  John Bew is a Northern Irish academic who contributes to the New Statesman and other outlets.  Newton Emerson, Eilis O’Hanlon, Alex Kane and Malachi O’Doherty all write well about Northern Ireland, from different perspectives.  There are many others.

I don’t like to perpetuate the notion that ‘they don’t care about Northern Ireland’ which often seems to colour our attitude toward the rest of the UK.  We’re a ridiculously touchy, self-absorbed little place at times, that consistently ignores its relative size and overestimates its own importance.  Still, I’d expect the editorial team of a national current affairs magazine to pick up on some of the subtleties of our politics, if it’s interested enough to run articles on the topic in the first place.

Unless The Spectator has made a conscious decision to present, unchallenged, a contentious slant, it’s recent commissioning decisions reflect apparent indifference to the quality of its coverage of Northern Ireland. The same is true of other outlets. I think we should expect better, because too many articles lately have presented a highly eccentric interpretation of this place, that few people who live here recognise.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Devolution in Northern Ireland has been a dismal failure.

When should we admit that devolution in Northern Ireland has so far been a dismal failure?    Even when the power-sharing Executive operated, it rarely legislated and refused to tackle the most pressing problems afflicting our society and economy.  
Twenty years after the IRA renewed its ceasefire, is it still enough that bombs don’t explode regularly on our streets?   Maybe the latest political crisis should be the point at which we finally insist upon a system of government that gets things done.
The Good Friday Agreement launched a process intended to build a peaceful and successful Northern Ireland.  The institutions it established were supposed to develop into a functioning local government, capable of taking decisions about health, education, the budget and other aspects of policy that comprise ‘normal politics’.
Perhaps even more importantly, power-sharing was supposed to create a ‘shared’ Northern Ireland, where the social and financial costs of segregation were drastically reduced.  The Agreement specified that the Executive was obliged to encourage integrated education and mixed housing, for instance.
None of this has happened remotely convincingly.   
The most difficult policy decisions are either deferred - like reforming the health service, solving the 11-plus impasse and rebalancing the economy, or become part of Stormont’s regular crises - like devolving policing and justice, implementing welfare reform and dealing with the past.  Rather than pursuing integration, the devolved Executive has actually magnified differences between identities and elevated them into a kind of fetish.
After the St Andrews’ accord in 2007, the Hillsborough negotiations on policing and justice, the Stormont House Agreement in 2014 and the ironically titled ‘Fresh Start’ of 2015 it’s both staggering and drearily predictable that the parties are in another round of talks aimed at getting power-sharing started again.  The RHI green energy scandal that prompted the crisis has been practically forgotten, while Sinn Fein focuses on its ever shifting shopping-list of demands.
That party is particularly addicted to set-pieces, because its political strategy is dependent upon nurturing disenchantment and instability.  It showed formidable cynicism and hypocrisy when it collapsed the Executive.  
Republicans certainly tell bare-faced lies about the past, in order to legitimise their twisted version of what happened in the Troubles and their notion of ‘equality’ is just an just underhand way of attacking Northern Ireland’s constitutional position.  Yet the DUP showed little cunning in dealing with such slippery, dishonest opponents, allowing them to drag everything from Brexit to gay marriage into a dispute about boilers.      
This is the way business gets done in Northern Ireland and the pattern is reinforced by the involvement of both the British and Irish governments in negotiations.  Meanwhile, because the Executive did not agreed a budget for this financial year, public services face cuts, as civil servants do not have the same freedom to take far-reaching decisions as elected representatives.
That could be devastating for Northern Ireland’s health service, which is already creaking, thanks to successive ministers’ failures to implement badly needed reforms.  Schools here also expect to lose 2.5% of their funding.  Yet the parties who won’t get back to work continue to blame civil servants and the British government.
The self-importance of some politicians at Stormont has been indulged for far too long.  They shouldn’t need to be constantly cajoled and appeased to get them to do their jobs.  If they won’t take responsibility for governing Northern Ireland, then devolved powers will have to return to Westminster.  Perhaps the Assembly could retain some kind of consultative role at the committee stage of legislation, though only if its wages and expenses were pruned drastically.
Alternatively, the government might refuse to facilitate any more talks or elections until the parties agree to discuss serious reform of the Assembly.  At a minimum, the opposition needs seriously beefed up powers.  
The parties could be offered three choices after the Westminster election has taken place and talks resume, either go back to work now without any preconditions, accept important reforms to make Stormont operate better or face direct rule immediately.  
If there isn’t agreement on developing the devolved institutions and if there were a lengthy spell of direct rule, some of the long-standing problems with the health service, education and rebalancing the economy might finally be addressed.  The local parties have proved incapable of taking difficult or potentially unpopular decisions and until there is evidence that they’re prepared to be more responsible, power-sharing is a meaningless sham.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

How can Northern Ireland make the most of Brexit?

Previously, I argued that there are no longer any ‘leavers’ or ‘remainers’: just Brexit deniers and Brexit realists.  The UK will leave the EU and the government has outlined in reasonable detail its plan for the future.  Northern Ireland’s decision-makers, whether or not they comprise a devolved Executive, can either act as if they're still fighting the referendum campaign, or start to plan to make the best of our future after Brexit.

On behalf of the think-tank Global Britain, and local businesses including Sandelford Policy, David Hoey and I have written a report describing “An Agenda for Northern Ireland After Brexit”.  This sets out a framework to address some of the policy challenges presented locally by Brexit.

At The Dissenter, David sets out in detail why all levels of government in Northern Ireland should “stop talking and start doing”.  Many of our most pressing local issues are economic and many of the issues that we’ll face after Brexit are already long-standing problems.  The paper emphasises priorities that should already have been high on the Executive’s ‘to-do list’.
  • Committing to a restructured economy that favours a vibrant private sector rather than an unproductive public sector.
  • Tackling issues of uncompetitiveness.
  • Providing companies, particularly SMEs, with the support to grow profitably and to access new markets.
  • Fostering a culture of enterprise and entrepreneurship.
  • Offering low business taxes.
  • Encouraging effective research and development.
  • Improving efficiency in the agricultural sector.
  • Developing a positive strategy for fisheries.
Some aspects of policy need freshly examined, in light of new circumstances.  Should the Executive look at where its trade offices are situated, in preparation for Brexit?  How can Northern Ireland companies exploit any “trade push” by the UK government, after we leave the EU?  Can any restrictions on migrant labour actually provide an opportunity to tackle economic inactivity?
This report highlights some of the areas that should be discussed seriously, as part of Northern Ireland’s Brexit preparations.  It’s an attempt to open up a constructive debate, that doesn’t revolve around unachievable attempts to effectively make the referendum result go away.  
It’s happening.  Let’s try to approach Brexit positively and let's plan for Northern Ireland's future.  

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Irish debate on Brexit needs to move on from referendum

After the EU vote the terms ‘leaver’ and ‘remainer’ became effectively meaningless.  More accurately, we now have ‘Brexit realists’, who accept the result, and ‘Brexit deniers’, who are still fighting the referendum campaign, almost 9 months after it officially finished.

In Ireland, north and south, ‘denial’ can cause real damage, because it won’t allow the focus of debate to address how both parts of the island can prepare for Brexit.  Article 50 will be triggered, without serious impediment in the House of Commons, and while many of the details are still uncertain, the UK will leave the European Union.  We also know the broad strategy the government intends to pursue after it leaves.

Surely even those who would rather Brexit didn’t happen can plan to make the best of the circumstances we’re in?  As yet, there’s little sign of that happening.  

Alone among the UK’s devolved institutions, the Northern Ireland Executive is without a document outlining its strategy for the leaving process.  In the Republic, the Dublin government convened an “all Ireland conversation”, composed overwhelmingly of deniers, which did little to address the practical issues Brexit presents to our neighbouring state.

Meanwhile, various political parties are encouraging the entirely unattainable notion that Northern Ireland will have a “special status” within the UK, which preserves membership of the single market.  Even if that were achievable, and conclusively it is not, it would simultaneously decimate the political process and construct barriers to trade with our biggest trading partner (the rest of the UK), in a spurious attempt to protect trade with a much smaller market (the Republic and the rest of the EU).

Earlier this week, Jeff Peel wrote a calmly argued and carefully evidenced article outlining the opportunities Brexit offers Northern Ireland.  It actually doesn’t even matter any more whether the potential opportunities are greater inside the EU.  We’ve had that debate, and now it’s time to prepare for new circumstances.  

Many of the challenges that could prevent Northern Ireland flourishing after Brexit already hold back our economy anyway, so it’s particularly disappointing that our political leaders are so unfocused on the preparations.  It exposes a critical ongoing lack of “policy architecture” as it’s been described by the QUB economist, Graham Brownlow, besides the more obvious problems with unstable institutions.

The Republic of Ireland is less impervious to practical political considerations.  The Dublin government has used emotive language about Northern Ireland to vent its anxieties about Brexit, but, as David Hoey argues today, it faces far more fundamental economic problems, because its economy is closely linked both to the UK and the US.  Two thirds of its exports will be destined for markets outside the remaining EU nation states, when Britain leaves.

The only “special status” that David believes makes some sense, allows the Republic to remain within the EU, but grants some special dispensation to reflect its dependency on the UK economy and its geographical place in the British Isles.  Another option, as politically unlikely as it seems at present, is for the Dublin government to follow its London counterpart out of the EU.  A discussion around ‘Irexit’ has already started, and time will tell whether it gains momentum.    

The debate about whether Brexit will happen or not was conducted almost twelve months ago.  It will continue, as an intellectual exercise, up to and beyond the UK leaving the EU.  Policy makers on either side of the border can’t afford that luxury.  They need to move on and start thinking about trade and prosperity in post-Brexit Ireland.   

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

The Assembly election: picking over the wreckage

For someone who wants Northern Ireland to work properly, particularly if he or she believes that can happen only within the United Kingdom, assessing the Assembly election results feels rather like picking through a car crash.  It was clear enough that an unnecessary, divisive campaign would end badly, but the extent of the damage was perhaps unexpected.

The significance of unionism losing its majority at Stormont is less about the constitutional question and more about parties that have lost touch with potential voters and broader changes in society.  After all, while the campaign was ongoing, it was commonplace to hear that the border was not an issue at this election, whereas some of the same commentators now insist that Brexit and DUP incivility have reignited popular demands for a united Ireland.

There’s no compelling evidence that the new composition of the Assembly reflects a widespread desire to revisit the border question.  Any constitutional uncertainty created by the UK’s decision to leave the EU represents the tiniest fraction of the upheaval that would follow a referendum determining that Northern Ireland should become part of a thirty-two county Irish republic.

None of which means that the Union is in a healthy state, never mind that pro-Union parties are flourishing.  A lack of appetite for a united Ireland isn’t the same as a positive commitment to the United Kingdom, and a significant section of Northern Ireland’s new legislature, including the constitutionally ‘agnostic’ Alliance Party, wants a ‘special status’ within the UK after Brexit that preserves membership of the EU’s single market.

The government is resolutely opposed to that kind of arrangement, so it won’t happen, but it is dangerous that radical change to our position within the United Kingdom is even under discussion by so-called moderates.  When positive, pro-Union arguments are not articulated effectively, the tone of debate in Northern Ireland can easily change.  

That’s why the approach Arlene Foster and the DUP took during the campaign was spectacularly misguided, even if it was understandable given the circumstances of the election.  The former First Minister’s fearmongering and her confrontational, smirking demeanour were the right tactics to fend off any challenge from the UUP, but they were a disastrous strategy for unionism.

The cynicism and hypocrisy that Sinn Fein showed when it collapsed the Executive were formidable, but it’s up to unionists to show a little more cunning in the face of such slippery, dishonest opponents.  Yes, republicans tell bare-faced lies about the past, in order to legitimise their twisted version of the Troubles and their version of ‘equality’ is just an underhand way of attacking the principle of consent.      
Then again, the DUP has done little to promote the counter-arguments, that Irish culture is valued within Northern Ireland and the UK, even if that doesn’t mean granting parity to symbols and institutions associated with the Republic of Ireland state.  It could have articulated the case against an Irish language act more tactfully too, or even presented an alternative that minimised the costs and the effects to public services.

That didn’t happen because the party’s habit is to posture against everything it considers Irish or nationalist - a stance which it believes the unionist electorate rewards at the polls.

Something similar might be said for emotive social matters, like same-sex marriage.  ‘SSM’ has developed, in an astonishingly brief period of time, from a marginal concern into an overwrought totem of 'equality', particularly for younger people.  The DUP and some other unionists have allowed a debate over a word, because same-sex couples can already access legal rights practically identical to a married couple through ‘civil partnership’, to become a symbol of the supposed ‘backwardness’ of unionism.  

There was no need to sustain this damage.  Had the DUP simply voted against gay marriage, but declined to trigger a ‘petition of concern’, on the perfectly logical premise that it wasn’t appropriate, it could have stuck to its principles without exercising an anti-democratic veto.  This is exactly the type of constructive leadership that Arlene Foster might have offered during her ‘honeymoon period’ as First Minister, but the opportunity was squandered.

If the party considered such strategies at all, it probably decided that the risk of alienating traditional supporters was too great.  Indeed, Mrs Foster doesn’t have to look far to find examples of unionist leaders who apparently foundered after adopting liberal policies.  Mike Nesbitt has just resigned as UUP leader, following a campaign during which he announced his intention to give a number 2 vote to an SDLP candidate, rather than another unionist.

The consequences of his decision may be exaggerated - the Ulster Unionists actually increased their vote share in this election, albeit marginally.  Then again, Nesbitt would have hoped for substantial gains, after the party’s main unionist rivals endured months of criticism for their role in the RHI green energy scandal.  And the UUP’s Assembly election performance in 2016 wasn’t exactly an impressive benchmark.
Arlene Foster's response to the unionist parties’ underwhelming result, coupled with Sinn Fein’s gains and comparative success for Alliance, has been to call again for ‘unionist unity’.  This is a particularly bizarre prescription after an election that suggests unionist parties have a problem appealing to a broad spectrum of voters.  It’s a call that reflects the DUP’s ongoing fixation with maintaining its dominance within unionism.        
If unionist politics in Northern Ireland are narrow, monolithic and negative, they will atrophy and contribute ever less to shaping society or promoting the Union.  If they’re expansive, divergent and plugged into wider political debates in the UK, there is a chance of winning back voters and influencing the way the constitutional question is discussed.  A single unionist party, or a single unionist group, becomes an even stupider idea whenever the electorate unionism needs to reach is increasingly diverse.

Before I conclude, a word on RHI, which I’ve left to the end deliberately.  Though, ostensibly, the election was called because of the crisis, it quickly became part of the general background noise of the campaign.  Northern Ireland’s unscheduled trip to the ballot box actually delayed the heating initiative being dealt with and investigated properly.  RHI is also just the latest example of the appalling attitude to wasting money that pervades Stormont.  How can any of the other Assembly parties credibly attack the DUP, when their own approaches to public spending are equally as profligate?  

Of course, that doesn’t make the RHI episode acceptable.  The fact that Arlene Foster didn’t acknowledge its seriousness, and the fact that the other parties were unable during the campaign to stick to the topics that really matter - like waste, lack of transparency and economic incompetency - shows just how badly Stormont is failing.  Even if some type of dubious “cut and shut” job is performed to get the wreck up and running again, it will remain a dangerously rickety, malfunctioning vehicle.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Schama's Trump hysteria drowns out considered criticism of new administration

High-pitched screeching - Simon Schama.
Donald Trump’s first weeks in office have drawn strong reactions from his many critics right across the world.  Prominent entertainers, politicians, journalists and other public figures are among those who have articulated their opposition to the new US president in strident terms, on stage, on television, in print and, most vociferously, online.  

This deluge of political opinion has typically been expressed at a painfully high pitch, but few voices have shrieked more shrilly than that of TV historian, Simon Schama.  Schama is a successful, respected academic, whose training you might expect to impart a veneer of perspective and detachment, but for weeks he has pumped out hundreds (thousands?) of tweets about Trump, with an unmistakable timbre of hysteria.  

He’s compared the new US president to Hitler and Mussolini.  In fact he has ransacked thoroughly the annals of 1930s European history, in order to draw parallels with modern US politics.   Theresa May’s official visit to Washington DC to discuss a free trade deal was compared to Neville Chamberlain’s trip to Munich that ended in a tacit agreement permitting Hitler to invade Czechoslovakia.  Schama has taken to calling the British prime minister ‘Theresa Appeaser’, which may be skilled wordplay, but is also an outrageous, wildly inappropriate slur.

This fevered response to Trump is particularly odious, because it comes from a trained historian, but it is only an extreme example of the Pavlovian, content free clamour that accompanied the president’s ascension to power.  Whether or not such primal scream therapy makes liberals feel better, it is dangerous, because it inevitably crowds out more considered criticisms of the new administration.    

Trump’s political pronouncements are certainly frequently unseemly, worrying and even dangerous.  Despite a widespread expectation that he might moderate his rhetoric in office, he issued a flurry of ‘executive orders’ aimed at enacting controversial policies like building a “wall” on the border with Mexico and stopping certain Muslim travellers from entering the US. He’s surrounded himself with unpleasantly nationalist advisers, like Steve Bannon, who founded Breitbart News, a polemical website specialising in populist, right-wing clickbait.  

None of which makes Trump or his staff fascists, Nazis or even white nationalists.

That type of language starts to deflect from more substantive appraisals of his presidency.  However deplorable you believe Trump’s travel ban to be, it isn’t comparable to plotting genocide against an entire race or religion.  Inflated comparisons of that kind only devalue debate around his policy, and it actually lets the president off the hook.  

Neither is it good enough to rail against people who point out that perhaps some of the commentary around Trump is a little bit out of proportion.  The belief that calm, reasoned argument usually leads to more clarity than inflamed name-calling does not imply necessarily hidden sympathies for the new president.

The many protests against Trump that have taken place across the world have admittedly been animated by youthful zest, but they’ve also attracted a wearily familiar cast of complainers.  It’s not necessarily a slight to examine the substance of complaints from young, earnest protesters, the consistency of their arguments or the source of their motivations.

Is it cynical to suggest that, sometimes, invective against Trump is more about asserting the virtue of the complainant than a critical assessment of his arguments?  The protesters, the celebrities and even the academics are telling us something about themselves, their identities and their values, rather than engaging in political debate, which would, in any case be premature.  Trump is someone against whom they can define themselves.  

They’re furious that the new president isn’t “their kind of person”.

I sympathise.  He’s not my kind of person either.  I abhor his crassness, populist soundbites and pugilistic, un-statesmanlike demeanour.  But, none of that entitles me to make wildly overblown claims about his extremity.  I am not a historian.  How much more circumspect should be a professional whose discipline is evaluating the impact of human affairs over decades and centuries.  Schama’s hysterical tone puts the entirety of his work into doubt.         

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Local Labourites should stop sucking up to republican Corbyn

Whether or not you agree with their views, Labour activists in Northern Ireland are an indefatigable bunch.  Since 2003, when the party was obliged to accept local members, a small group of enthusiasts has implored, badgered and reasoned with its leaders, in a doomed attempt to have them stand candidates in elections here.

Their argument, based on the idea that all UK voters should have a say in who forms their national government, is strong, and it receives a polite hearing.  The responses range from enthusiasm - Andy Burnham, promised he’d support candidates in Northern Ireland if he became party leader - to indifference - Ed Miliband repeatedly offered to review the position - to diplomatic opposition.

However, Jeremy Corbyn is surely the least likely Labour leader in modern history to back the LPNI’s cause.  He is a veteran supporter of Irish unity and an unabashed friend of Sinn Fein.  

Far from supporting ‘equal citizenship’ for voters here, he believes that the British state is an occupying force in Northern Ireland and he holds, at best, ambiguous attitudes to republicans’ murderous campaign, designed to force an unwilling majority into a united Ireland.  

Yet local Labour activists continue to appeal to Corbyn’s better instincts, launching a fresh campaign using the Twitter hashtag #righttostand, and demanding to “fight austerity” at the forthcoming Assembly election.  You’ve got to admire their optimism, but, at the same time, it’s extraordinary to witness many Northern Irish Labourites sheeplike devotion to a leader who, by their own definition, deprives them of basic democratic rights.

Despite his disdain for Northern Ireland’s existence, Corbyn seems to be remarkably popular among current grassroots members here.  Labour activists claimed to have a membership of around 200 back in 2014 - under Ed Miliband - and, now, they bandy about figures in excess of 3,000.  

In a meeting prior to last year’s leadership challenge, over 70% of the Northern Ireland party reportedly expressed support for Corbyn and only 8% backed his opponent, Owen Smith.  Meanwhile, LPNI office holders were among signatories to a letter that pleaded to set up a branch of hard-left, Corbynite pressure group, Momentum.  Tellingly, that permission was denied.

Longer term Labour activists in Northern Ireland may not be fully paid up members of the Jeremy cult, but the party here is happy to promote his policies.  Kathryn Johnston, a senior figure who stood in last year’s election as an unofficial Labour candidate, without the party’s permission, expressed “absolute delight” at Corbyn’s successful defence of his leadership.  

Other veterans have been more guarded, but UK-minded Labourites in Northern Ireland are accustomed to performing contortions of logic, thanks to the British left’s infatuation with Irish nationalism.  The official reason that Labour doesn’t stand candidates here is its “fraternal” links to the SDLP.

The idea that Northern Ireland, with its bloated public sector and addiction to spending taxpayers’ money, needs to “fight austerity” is absurd.  However, we do need politics rooted in ideas about issues and economics, rather than sectarianism and division.  

Corbyn is degrading and destroying Labour, but it is still the official opposition at Westminster, and people in Northern Ireland should have a right to endorse or reject its policies, just like voters elsewhere in the UK.

To date, the Conservatives, during their brief alliance with the UUP, were the only major national party to contest elections seriously in Northern Ireland.  Local activists are still allowed to stand candidates, with occasional, variable assistance from Tory campaign headquarters.      

It suits the Conservative Party, with its pro-union credentials, to have its name on ballot papers in Northern Ireland, even if its efforts are, truthfully, rather half-hearted.  With its enduring sympathies for Irish nationalism and republicanism, particularly on the left of the party, Labour is a different matter.

Some of its Northern Ireland activists took the brave decision to defy their leaders at last year’s election and stand, without official backing, as the Labour Representation Committee.  That approach at least got Labour linked candidates on the ballot paper and it is likely to be more fruitful than sucking up to an IRA apologist like Jeremy Corbyn.

This article was published first in today's Belfast News Letter.