Friday, 30 October 2009

Infantilising the Northern Ireland electorate

I try to ignore Brian Walker’s contributions to Slugger, really I do, and broadly, in this endeavour, I am successful. His dense swamps of prose are easy to identify by their lack of paragraphing, and they rarely contain enough content to snag an unwilling reader’s eye. Just occasionally, however, my Walkerdar lets me down and I am unfortunate enough to find myself knee deep in the muddled, muddy mulch which comprises Brian’s political analyses.

Today, regrettably, I’ve been forced to extricate myself, one boot at a time, from such a sucking, fetid morass.

It is a confusing experience, as one finds oneself surrounded by disconnected, swirling sentences, untethered to a coherent argument. In truth there is generally some type of emotional core identifiable, deep within a Walker post, although usually it is better to feel it instinctively, rather than attempt to understand it by following through its so called logic. Around it forms a dizzying and condescending miasma of woolly worthiness.

In this case Brian’s central emotion is anxiety that non Northern Irish parties might disturb the serene vessel which he understands represents our politics. Not that Walker is a fan of the DUP or Sinn Féin you appreciate. He believes that they are parochial parties and that Northern Ireland’s politicians are incurably short-sighted. However, woe betide any party which seeks to look beyond the boundaries of these six counties. They are in danger of ‘widening the sectarian divide’.

Apart from the mysterious expansion which this religious cleavage is set to undergo, through the introduction of more secular political discourse, Walker also contends that national British parties’ involvement in Northern Irish politics, “throws into confusion what people are voting for”. The same thesis holds if parties from the Republic, and Fianna Fail are the primary case in point, decide to run candidates here. That’s it. That’s the entire substance of the argument.

Asides from the gaping logical lacunae and the awful writing, the most offensive aspect of this type of post, is that it is profoundly, jaw droppingly patronising! It rests on an assumption that people in Northern Ireland cannot be trusted to participate in normal political discourse. In order to render the ‘sectarian divide’ manageable they must forever be required to submit to its political manifestation. Whichever democratic verdict they reach on the province’s constitutional status might be reflected by an illusion of respect for the principle of consent, but in reality they are doomed to exist in political suspended animation (albeit for their own good).

It might be nonsense derived from a liberal sensibility, but nonetheless it is offensive. And it is based on a serious misinterpretation of the Belfast Agreement. The Good Friday accord entitled people in Northern Ireland to determine their constitutional future and required that that determination be respected. It certainly did not entrench in law a tacit understanding that politics here should remain perpetually semi-detached.

If visit improves UK relations with Russia, it will be in spite of Miliband.

At the height of controversy surrounding the Litvinenko affair, former dissident and adviser to President Putin, Gleb Pavlosky, accused David Miliband of imbibing anti Russian sentiment ‘with his mother’s milk’. He was indulging, undoubtedly, in a degree of hyperbole, and mining Miliband family history to impugn the current generation was an unfortunate mode of debate. However his comments reflected genuine anger at the British foreign secretary’s consistently hostile attitude to Russia and little has occurred, in the intervening two years, to reassure Russians as to Miliband’s good faith.

Nevertheless, this weekend, Miliband will embark upon the first visit to Russia by a UK foreign secretary in five years, when he visits his counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in Moscow. Notwithstanding his clumsy, carping, unnuanced interventions on behalf of Ukraine and Georgia, there is an appetite for partnership between the UK and Russia. RIA Novosti, the state news agency, reports Russian hopes that the visit will help ‘consolidate’ improving relationships. Echoing language which has accompanied regime change at the White House, Lavrov commented that ‘everything is ready for a reset’.

Miliband has personified a new Labour approach to foreign policy which prefers to posture and preach rather than employ the more subtle arts of diplomacy. He has pronounced on all manner of domestic and regional disputes which were, ostensibly, none of Britain’s business, and certainly did not affect its interests. Until William Hague takes over at the FCO, it will remain in the hands of a minister who wastes the knowledge and expertise of its staff and prioritises domestic politicking rather than an advancement of UK trade and influence.

It is unlikely that the current foreign secretary will consider carefully the advice which Tony Brenton, Britain’s Ambassador to Moscow between 2004-2008, offers in this morning’s Times, for his impending visit. It is certainly a subtler assessment of Russia’s current progress, and its recent history, than we are accustomed to hearing from Foreign Office ministers. Brenton advises,

“we should work with Russia where we can. Talk of a “new Cold War” is a grotesque exaggeration. Russia is not the revanchist troublemaker depicted in much of the Western press. Its foreign policy is based on a cautious assessment of its national interest. There is common ground that we should work to exploit. Russia is as keen as we are to stop Iran going nuclear and Afghanistan falling back into the hands of the Taleban. We have a joint contribution to make to cutting the world’s excessive stock of nuclear weapons. And there are vast gains to be made by expanding our mutual trade and investment.”

His article concludes,

“we should remain optimistic. Russia is a country that, in terms of both history and culture, knows itself to be profoundly European. As it looks around its borders, the least threatening one is that to the west. Its trade and investment links are heavily western orientated. The values to which it aspires are Western values. As its people grow more prosperous and more knowledgeable about the freedoms enjoyed by their Western neighbours, so they will grow less tolerant of the constraints under which they are forced to live.”

Whatever one makes of the totality of the former Ambassador’s analysis, his tone is cautious and realistic. I’d imagine it will be wasted on David Miliband. If British – Russian relations are advanced over the next few days, it will be in spite of the foreign secretary.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Medvedev might yet become Russia's next reformer

The Russian President recently set out a prospectus for modernisation in an article published on the democratic news-site, Perennially hostile observers chose to interpret the piece as an extension of a good cop / bad cop routine which they believe Medvedev is engaged in, in conjunction with Vladimir Putin. By their estimation, real power resides squarely with the Prime Minister and suggestions of liberalism, which occasionally emanate from the President’s office, form a convenient distraction, simply permitting Putin to exercise his personal authority with greater freedom and efficiency.

Cynicism amongst commentators, however, is not universal. There are those who believe that Putin’s influence has merely postponed a project of reform for which Medvedev will seek a mandate in 2012. The article does not suggest that the President will willingly stand aside, should his predecessor seek an immediate return to the Kremlin, and there is plenty of evidence to corroborate the thesis that Medvedev intends to serve more than one term.

The Russian constitution is, of course, heavily weighted in favour of the President. Putin’s influence, exercised from a competing office, has been retained throughout the first year and a half of Medvedev’s presidency, but there have been tensions.

If the current incumbent is determined enough to seek a further four years, he will prove difficult to unseat and his authority will certainly be consolidated. It is difficult to envisage Putin taking the backseat for another spell of ‘diarchy’, without losing a degree of authority, however omnipotent his powers of manipulation might seem to Russophobe conspiracy theorists.

Dimitry Travin, on Open Democracy, speculates that Medvedev can transform Russia as comprehensively as Gorbachev, if he possesses the will to emerge from beneath Putin’s shadow.

In his own words, the President longs to build a state which is, “richer, freer, more humane and more attractive”. He wants to liberate the country from its economic dependence on raw materials and he is prepared to be candid about the dysfunctions which currently disfigure Russia.

Rather than harangue Medvedev and his countrymen for perceived shortcomings, we should offer every encouragement towards those ambitious ends.

DUP MP solitary advocate of death penalty at Commons' debate

We’ve had Ian McCrea’s campaign to prevent the Pope visiting Northern Ireland, Iris Robinson’s hate-filled remarks about homosexuals, Sammy Wilson’s climate change denial, Edwin Poots et al with their five thousand year old Earth and Jim Wells versus wifi.

But if anyone still harbours a suspicion that the DUP might be remotely connected, by even the flimsiest thread, to the mainstream of British politics, they should examine Gregory Campbell’s contribution to a Westminster Hall debate aimed at pressuring some of the more unpleasant regimes throughout the world to abandon the death penalty.

Across party divides agreement was reached that abolition should be sought in countries including Iran, China and Belarus. A rare accord, which did not include the East Londonderry MP, who rejected ‘cosy consensus’, on the basis that a ‘small number of serial killers who treat the prospect of redemption with utter contempt’ could ‘commit another crime against an innocent person’. A scenario which might unfold if the particular killer ‘had escaped detention’.

As Mark Durkan acidly observed,

“The hon. Member for East Londonderry has described a scenario, but he has not given us any actual examples of notorious serial killers who have either been released and killed other people, or escaped. He is giving us Hollywood fantasy scripts; he has given us no concrete examples.”

On this tenuous basis, Campbell continued to profess himself ‘unconvinced’ by the case for abolition. To his credit the Conservative MP for Aylesbury, David Lindington, generously noted that surprising levels of public support for the death penalty exist in Britain, which “should put us on our guard when we debate how to engage with other sovereign nations that have decided, for reasons of their own, to retain the death penalty”.

It would be interesting to discover whether Campbell’s position is commonly held by DUP representatives and whether it reflects party policy. It is certainly seriously out of step with positions adopted by all the mainstream parties. And it clearly exacerbates the sense that the DUP consists of eccentric, reactionary populists, considered a lunatic fringe at Westminster.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

No credible critique of UCUNF has emerged from within the UUP which rejects the Tory link.

When four Ulster Unionists signed a letter of protest, attacking their party leader’s decision to forge an electoral pact with David Cameron’s Conservatives, I welcomed the opportunity to bring dissent out into the open. Roy Garland was one figure whose name appeared on the letter, and its contents reflected closely the preoccupations which colour his weekly column in the Irish News.

In common with two of his fellow dissidents, Garland is no longer a UUP representative. He exercises influence through his articles (with which this blog frequently disagrees). After enduring months of innuendo and sniping through that medium, Sir Reg Empey finally chose to respond to Garland’s criticism in the Irish News’ letter pages, last week. Their differences have now been made explicit.

I believe that this type of internal debate should have been fought, and won, earlier, in order to let UCUNF make its case to voters with unity of purpose. However the maxim ‘better late than never’ is applicable.

The UUP’s Conference demonstrated that the vast majority of Ulster Unionists are supportive of the Conservatives and Unionists pact. If the leadership is prepared to stick to the principles of the deal which it has struck, propound its benefits to unionism wholeheartedly and defend it against criticism, from whichever source, then it will emerge in good shape for an election battle.

Alternatively, if a few incessant, doubting voices are left to go unchallenged and, in deference to the sensibilities of a tiny number of members, the party continues to underplay the significance of UCUNF, it will appear that the UUP itself is not convinced of the deal’s merits and it will have no chance of convincing voters.

The truth is that no credible, coherent critique has emerged from within the Ulster Unionist party which rejects the Conservative link. Garland’s latest Irish News piece epitomises the scattergun nature of criticism thus far. The only thread which ties together his arguments, and the patchy dissent from other figures, is a tribal loathing of Tories.

There are the predictable, snide insinuations that the Tories are ‘English’, can’t be trusted and so forth. We have the, fairly transparent, cross-class community solidarity stuff and an absurd suggestion that William Hague, by deploring loyalist paramilitaries, described ‘working class unionists’ as ‘thugs’. It’s thin, distasteful gruel for any civic unionist.

Meanwhile, the only significant figure to oppose the arrangements, Sylvia Hermon, has yet to rationalise her reticence, other than to claim, with lip aquiver, that she is not ‘a Tory’.

The facts are that the Ulster Unionists will be contesting the next election in conjunction with the Conservative party and that joint candidates will stand in all eighteen constituencies.

In order to send MPs to Westminster, and the government benches, the UUP will need to robustly defend its arrangements, whether the attacks are coming from outside the party or from amongst its ranks.

Salmond is 'irrelevant' to general election result.

Wouldn’t it have been a rare privilege to be the man, or woman, who, along with morning coffee, delivered to Scotland’s ‘Il Duce’ the news that David Cameron considers him ‘irrelevant’ to the result of the next general election?

One can only imagine the look of indignation which must have contorted Alex Salmond’s smug countenance.

Cameron is of course correct to point out that the SNP leader does not even intend to contest the Westminster poll.

Although, if he is not a candidate, such is the personality cult which envelops Salmond, there is little doubt that he will attempt to turn each and every battle for a Scottish seat into a personal plebiscite on his own popularity. However, in previous general elections, Scots have always rejected the SNP in favour of participating in a national contest.

Mr Cameron’s remarks were in response to Salmond’s suggestion that a hung parliament could follow a general election, in which case his party might hold the balance of power, and Westminster would be ‘hung from a Scottish rope’. The imagery is a nasty (and characteristic) piece of populism which deserves contempt.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

The Illusion of Freedom - Scotland Under Nationalism. Review.

Tom Gallagher is not by temperament or inclination a unionist. His book, ‘The Illusion of Freedom’, questions the effectiveness of the SNP’s leadership of Scottish nationalism, but does not reject, explicitly, the legitimacy of the party’s aim of independence. The author is critical of the personality cult surrounding Alex Salmond, his party’s cronyism and clientelism, its confused economic policies, the Anglophobia associated with its chauvinist doctrines, but Gallagher treats as axiomatic the assumption that Scotland, as a nation, must enjoy a high degree of political self-expression in order to flourish. If he eventually rejects Salmond’s separatism, it is because he believes it leads to an inward looking, socially conservative, centralist state, not because he subscribes to integrationist unionism.

‘The Illusion of Freedom’ consists of two parts. The first charts a fairly brief history of Scotland, stretching from the Act of Union in 1707 until the Scottish Parliament’s reestablishment in 1998, with particular emphasis on the role of nationalism, in its various guises. The second focuses on the post devolution settlement and, most pertinently, the SNP’s custodianship of the Scottish Executive since 2007.

Gallagher is not afraid to deconstruct shibboleths on either side, insisting, for instance, that unionism, in its original form, was as much a product of Scots’ enlightenment thinking as English expansionism. Unionists will read passages of the book with equal discomfort. The British state is often portrayed as a centralising monolith which suppresses Scottish cultural identity. Gallagher consistently advocates more devolution, rather than less, and more concessions to a separate Scottish identity, rather than fewer, as the best means to govern Scotland, whether it remains part of the Union or not.

Rather than interpret the SNP’s current prominence as a baleful consequence of ill-advised, asymmetric devolution, the author is more inclined to bemoan a failure of UK parties in Scotland to reflect a specifically Scottish ethos. The Scottish Labour party, nervous of inflaming nationalist sentiment and circumscribed by its central apparatus in London, he indicts for not sufficiently advancing the interests of Scotland, during its period in government. It is an approach which Gallagher applies to the full sweep of post Union history. The Scottish Conservative party is criticised too, for moments when it chose to neglect ‘national expression’ in order to pursue a more conventional unionist project.

‘The Illusion of Freedom’ argues, then, that it is the unionist parties’ omissions which have provided the space for the ascendancy of populist nationalism, craftily masterminded by Alex Salmond. Gallagher wants more decision making devolved to Holyrood, more fiscal powers migrated to Edinburgh, Scotland’s identity to be reflected more robustly in its regional institutions, but he also abhors the manner in which the SNP has carried out its duties since it formed a minority administration in 2007.

And it is his devastating verdict on the Scottish National Party under Salmond which comprises the strongest material in Gallagher’s book.

The First Minister’s devotion to the Royal Bank of Scotland, and his stout defence of its policies even after it was bailed out by the British taxpayer, is scrutinised closely in ‘The Illusion of Freedom’. Despite the demolition of financial models underpinning his case for independence, Salmond was able to brazen out the crash by concentrating on populist themes and ignoring substantive economic criticism.

The nationalists’ tendency to take various interest groups on as clients, and interact with citizens through the medium of group rights, is also explored. Gallagher is particularly interested in the SNP’s Islamist connections, which he charts in detail. And Salmond’s conscious attempt to court traditional Catholicism, with a Janus-faced approach to social issues, is highlighted, along with the party’s steadfast refusal to combat sectarianism.

The most prominent nationalist characteristic, however, and one which the author particular deplores, is a tendency either to ignore Scotland’s problems altogether, or blame them on the larger neighbour to the south. He finds SNP rule short-termist, populist and quick to blame England for any underlying problem, rather than offer constructive policies in order to deliver a solution.

Whether you agree with the interpretation of the UK’s constitution which underlies its argument or not, this book is a substantial polemic against Alex Salmond and his party. It is carefully researched and engagingly written. Anyone who wishes to understand the nationalist dynamic in modern Scottish politics should read it.

Available, as always, from the bookstore.

Welsh poll result points to Tory gains

From Conservative Home:

“Today's Western Mail carries what Political Betting's Mike Smithson reports as YouGov's first ever Wales-only Westminster voting intention poll. It saw over 1,000 Welsh voters surveyed last week.”

It finds that 34% of Welsh voters intend to vote Labour, just ahead of the Conservatives at 31%, whilst Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats languish at 15% and 12% respectively.

In a traditional Labour heartland, these poll results could translate into twelve Tory seats, which would demolish the thesis that David Cameron presides over an England-only party.

It also reinforces the suspicion that nationalism is not making gains in Wales, similar to those which have been achieved in Scotland.

Monday, 26 October 2009

A 'price to pay' for policing and justice agreement? And moving the argument on from justifying UCUNF.

Before we consign the Ulster Unionist conference to the archives for another year, there are a couple of points worth addressing, which have been rather sidelined by the thorny issue of agreed candidates and the small, ancient cadre of UCUNF dissenters.

The leader’s speech touched on more substantive policy considerations than commentators have generally acknowledged. Long sections were, after all, devoted to the economy, health and education.

Indeed a significant, and strangely ignored, portion of his address was concerned with policing and justice, which has dominated political opinion pages for a number of months. It is surprising that more attention has not been paid to Sir Reg Empey’s remarks on this topic.

The Ulster Unionist party, its leader insisted, is not opposed, in principle, to the devolution of justice powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is, however, intensely anxious about a process dictated by a deal, “concocted privately between the DUP and Sinn Fein”. A deal which is subject to a ‘sunset clause’ and dependent on “the appointment of a puppet minister”.

Despite the party’s anxiety, however, Empey did not go so far as to dismiss the possibility of UUP assent for an early conclusion to the devolution process. There would, he intimated, simply be a price to pay for Ulster Unionist support.

Genuine four party discussions should precede its implementation, Empey insisted, and “there must be an open and transparent process to reconstruct the Executive and make it work as a full four party coalition”.

The implication is clear. The Ulster Unionist party will no longer provide political cover for the DUP and Sinn Féin, unless its input is sought and listened to.

It is a message which chimes harmoniously with the themes which Empey and SDLP executive colleague, Margaret Ritchie, elucidated in Friday’s Belfast Telegraph. Her party, which is also sidelined under the current carve-up, would be wise to coordinate its efforts with Ulster Unionists. There is common mutual interest to be advanced.

There should be eventual cooperation from the SDLP and UUP, as regards policing and justice, but it is perfectly reasonable to insist that the process which delivers it must involve the two groups.

And, as a price for their agreement with a deal, exclusively thrashed out between the DUP, Sinn Féin and government (thus far), it is entirely justifiable if the two other parties seek to ensure that a requirement for the executive to operate as a proper four party coalition, in the future, is an enduring legacy of their part in the final negotiations.

Linking the two matters is a clever strategy and one which the SDLP should explicitly support.

As I live blogged Empey’s remarks on Saturday morning it was noticeable there were a number of comments implying that his speech was rather too keen to emphasise the Conservative deal’s unionist credentials. Although I reject the assertion that the UUP leader concentrated only on matters related to the Union and its maintenance, I do accept that this criticism had some validity.

Chatting outside the conference hall, one party activist, describing his concerns about the address, expressed the opinion that it was attempting a task which should have been completed last year. Empey, he contended, was laying out the rationale behind UCUNF, rather than starting to articulate the substance behind its ‘new politics’.

He had a point, although Sir Reg’s remarks, it could be argued, were merely reflecting a debate which continues to rage within the party and in the comment pages of local newspapers.

There is a danger, however, that as the election approaches, the UUP will continue to preoccupy itself with selling the arrangements to its own members, rather than winning over the voting public. A degree of discipline needs to be asserted in order to emphasise that the time for argument has now passed.

Certainly William Hague’s speech got on with dealing with issues, national, international and occasionally local, in convincing fashion. His party leader had provided the rhetoric to cement a repaired relationship last year.

If Conservatives and Unionists had formed a pact in order to open up national discussions to a Northern Irish audience, then Hague was going to start talking about those pertinent issues, immediately.

Rural Russia meets urban Belfast

On Saturday evening I attended Prime Cuts’ version of Black Milk, a play by Vassily Sigarev, receiving its Irish premiere at the Belfast Festival. Set in a desolate Urals’ backwater, at a crumbling train station, a trashy ‘New Russian’ couple from the city find themselves in a clash of culture and values with the rural poor.

Lyovchick and his heavily pregnant wife are ‘shuttle traders’, hustling the locals to buy ‘super toasters’ for exorbitant prices. Apparently many of their customers believe the devices will enable them to bake bread.

When Shura’s waters break she is taken in by kindly ‘Auntie Pasha’ who helps deliver the baby, and the chain smoking female lead, with a dissolute past, becomes seduced by the notion of living a simple, honest life in the countryside.

Her abusive husband has different ideas and an intense and occasionally brutal final scene is played out, as Shura pleads with Lyovchick to embrace a new life and he attempts to wrench her back to the routine to which they are both accustomed.

There are moments when this play is almost Dostoevskyian in its ambitions. Dirt poor characters, so grotesquely drawn that they are tinged with an element of parody contribute to its black comedy. And with her string of abortions and supposed encounter with God, Shura threatens to become a Sonya for the twenty first century. Although, without giving too much away, ultimately there is no redemption in Black Milk.

The themes of the play are grounded in modern Russia. New money, poverty, hopelessness, alcoholism, vibrant but cruel cities and a forgotten rural hinterland.

However the director, Matthew Twomey, has sought to imply the drama’s applicability to Ireland by conflating Russian characters and identifiable Irish traits, including portraying the two leads as broad-Belfast spivs.

This was occasionally distracting.

The brash, new monied Russian entrepreneurs represented by Lyovchick and Shura are types only loosely compatible with the chavish Norn Irish personas with which they were imbued. The two are not, I would argue, directly interchangeable, although I acknowledge that the intention is to allow a Belfast audience to get its bearings more swiftly, within this unfamiliar Russian landscape.

The final scene is also, it should be said, emotionally exhausting and the relentless tirades of shouting and abuse might leave theatre goers eager for the quiet of a dark, empty room afterwards. But the barrage is necessary to understand the dynamic between the two main characters.

Ultimately this is an intense and rewarding piece of theatre which will take you out of South Belfast for a couple of hours, to a grimy station in the middle of Russian nowhere. Think the title of this blog!

Black Milk is running to the 31 October at the Brian Friel Theatre (in the QFT building).

Soldiers' Stories - Northern Ireland

Marking the fortieth anniversary of the commencement of Operation Banner, History (formerly the History Channel) is screening a documentary called ‘Soldiers’ Stories’ tonight, at 9pm.

Bobballs has provided a positive review over at his site. I too enjoyed the programme. It doesn’t provide the most intricate analysis of Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles’, which are depicted in fairly broad strokes, but that is rather the point.

This is a personal interpretation of events, by individual British soldiers who served here, and it reflects their confusion, as well as frustration, anger, fear and, occasionally, excitement.

These are powerful, and occasionally harrowing tales, rendered all the more visceral by the ordinary men who tell them.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Option of a Conservative and Unionist pullout does not exist.

On Friday O’Neill offered a fairly imporous case against agreed candidates, on Unionist Lite. When I spoke to Sir Reg Empey yesterday he echoed many of O’Neill’s points. I wonder whether the Ulster Unionist leader, or an adviser, is an avid reader of the blog? It certainly provided a fine template to answer the most incessant question of the day.

Ironically, O’Neill points out below, the Belfast Telegraph reports a more equivocal response to the question of an electoral pact with the DUP, despite Empey’s grasp of the core arguments against contracting such an arrangement.

The paper points out that Ulster Unionists are prepared to have ’formal’ discussions with the Democratic Unionists, albeit that the possible theme for these talks is inferred in the article, rather than stated explicitly.

If the UUP does enter talks with the DUP then the message which they take to their rivals should be the same one which Empey described to me yesterday. If Peter Robinson and his party genuinely aspire to unionist unity in South Belfast or Fermanagh South Tyrone, they can unilaterally achieve their aim by standing aside for a Conservative and Unionist candidate.

That candidate would stand to win a seat on the government benches and represent Northern Irish unionists from the participatory heart of British politics.

Otherwise an election must be fought on the basis of the differing visions of unionism, divergent policies and competing outlooks which the two parties offer, rather than disingenuous, self-righteous, hypocritical blackmail from the DUP.

It is time that the UUP, from its leader down, accepted that part of the agreement which it reached with the Conservative party entails standing a candidate in every constituency in Northern Ireland. I believe that Empey does understand that any arrangement with a third party must, necessarily, lie within these constraints. By alluding to possible talks he is simply attempting to bat the metaphorical ball back to the DUP.

It is a risky strategy, which lacks the moral clarity inherent in O‘Neill‘s arguments. But the end result will be the same. There will be no electoral pullouts by the Conservatives and Unionists.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

The DUP should stand down in South Belfast and Fermanagh South Tyrone - Sir Reg Empey

I've just been chatting to the party leader, in the wake of a successful conference speech.

I took the opportunity to ask him about the 'unionist unity' question. He was fairly adamant that the Conservatives and Unionists would not be standing aside. It is clear that Arlene Foster's involvement in the DUP campaign for an electoral deal is particularly irksome to Ulster Unionists.

Sir Reg was scathing about her hypocrisy and motioned towards the Beaten Docket pub as an emblem of the DUP's chances in any election. When the Conservatives and Unionists select their candidates, Empey insisted, the DUP should simply support them.

Looking ahead to Assembly elections, likely to take place in 2011, the UUP party leader acknowledged that the Conservative and UUP connection would have to be considered. He agreed that it was difficult to envisage candidates from two connected parties fighting against each other, but highlighted legal difficulties in extending the Westminster arrangement.

Sir Reg Empey's leader's speech at 2009 conference

Ladies and Gentlemen: Thank you for coming.

I am delighted that so many of you are here today, demonstrating your commitment to the Party and the Union. As I have said on other occasions the grassroots of the UUP are the backbone of the party.

I’m also very pleased that William Hague agreed to be our guest speaker …

and I am grateful to him for taking time out of a very busy schedule to fly over for this conference.

And can I also welcome Owen Paterson and other members from the Conservative Party locally.

Thank you, too, to our Conference Committee, chaired by Terry Wright.

And especially to Hazel Legge, our staff at HQ, our public relations and research teams who did so much of the background preparation.

I wish to thank also all our public representatives; Lady Hermon MP and her colleagues in the Upper House who keep the Ulster Unionist flag flying in Parliament;

our MLAs and Councillors, who represent this Party so well across the Province.

I cannot let the occasion pass without paying tribute to our esteemed colleague Councillor Liz Johnston who passed away this week; she was an excellent president of our Councillors Association and an excellent and loyal Ulster Unionist; she will be sadly missed.

My Executive colleague Michael McGimpsey, has proved himself to be a first-class Minister and tireless fighter for the National Health Service.

And even though he has had to constantly battle for extra funding and endure the orchestrated hostility of political opponents …

he has ensured that our Health Service meets the huge demands placed upon it.

Finally, everyone in this Party has cause to be grateful to Jim Nicholson.

Jim, who was our first Conservatives and Unionists candidate, fought an excellent campaign and delivered the goods!

Credit crunch and recession

2009 has been a good year for our party. But I know as Employment Minister, that it has not been a good year for many in Northern Ireland. People have lost their jobs, and others face the threat of redundancy.

We also know, and David McNarry has done an excellent job highlighting the fact, that the Executive has huge financial problems to deal with.

Sadly, Sammy Wilson refused to recognise this black hole – until David pointed out that Sammy was actually at the bottom of it.

Savers in the PMS have endured a year of uncertainty as the government has not come forward yet with a plan to resolve their plight.

Gordon Brown said last month that no saver in the UK had lost out as a result of the banking crisis.

Wrong Prime Minister.

There are 20,000 savers in Northern Ireland, mostly small savers, who have been deprived of their savings.

If the Prime Minister’s word is his bond, then this government must help the only savers in the UK to have lost out.

If he can bail out greedy bankers and off shore speculators, he can jolly well give justice to the savers of the Presbyterian Mutual Society!

Dissident terrorism

The past year also has witnessed the murders of Constable Stephen Carroll and Sappers Quinsy and Azimkar.

Our thoughts, prayers, and gratitude go to their families and loved ones.

We also pay tribute to those police officers and their families who have been targeted and attacked in recent months, including in my own constituency.

To those still wedded to the ways of violence and sectarian hatred, I say this – Northern Ireland has come too far for you to drive us back into the past.

And I urge the Government to ensure that the Chief Constable has every resource possible to protect our society against the terrorists.

Euro Poll

Returning to the Euro Elections, I want to say a few words about their implications for our politics.

The June poll brought to an abrupt end Peter Robinson’s assertion that the ‘DUP is the voice of unionism.’

They have paid the electoral price for promising one thing and then doing the complete opposite.

The blunt reality for the DUP is that barely two and a half years after their self-serving ‘Themselves Alone’ deal with Sinn Fein, they have ceased to be the voice of unionism.

So again, congratulations to Jim Nicholson MEP.

And congratulations to the campaign team behind him …

both Ulster Unionists and Conservatives …

who did so much work to ensure Jim’s re-election.

This was an important election for us and for our relationship with the Conservative Party.

But the fact remains that at the first test of the Ulster Unionist/Conservative Party electoral alliance …

Jim Nicholson was the first unionist to be elected.

Ladies and Gentlemen---in my book that’s a good result!

Policing and Justice

Since last November, when the DUP and Sinn Fein cobbled together yet another side deal, the issue of Policing and Justice has never been far from the headlines …

although I suspect it is not the number one priority for many people on the ground.

Let me make one point crystal clear.

The Ulster Unionist Party is the party of law and order. After all we administered it here for over fifty years at Stormont.

We have no objection to these powers coming back to Stormont if the terms are right.

But I do not believe---and the UUP does not believe---that a deal concocted privately between the DUP and Sinn Fein …

a deal dependent on the appointment of a puppet minister and subject to a ‘sunset clause’ …
is the right way to transfer policing and justice powers. There is a better way to do this.

As a party of stability, we want policing and justice powers devolved securely and on the basis of a stable foundation.

For any government, the exercise of policing and justice powers is probably the most important role it has.

These powers are fundamental to our society’s freedom and safety.

Yet in Northern Ireland these very powers have been the subject of ongoing division and controversy.

The Executive must sit down to discuss what we might do with policing and justice powers to meet the inevitable challenge we will face if there is no agreed vision.

I have told the Prime Minister this as clearly as I can.

I believe that the transfer of these powers is much too important to get wrong.

In the weeks ahead, the Ulster Unionist Party will not be found wanting on this issue …

We will also have to address how we treat the past – we have seen the pain caused by the Eames/Bradley report.

The issue of parades needs to be discussed and a resolution found.

I want to expose the lie at the heart of the Executive – the belief that the DUP and Sinn Fein can go it alone and hope to build confidence.

They can’t and they won’t.

It is now over to the First and deputy First Ministers to do their jobs properly.

While Peter Robinson said this week that he will not do this policing deal without this party, I must tell him that there will be no support from us for any backroom deal;

we have set out our terms for this devolution, so Peter there will be a price.

There must be an open and transparent process to reconstruct the Executive and make it work as a full four party coalition.

No more dysfunctional meetings; and we must resolve the policy stalemates that are still there. We simply won’t allow things to continue as they are.

Change is coming Peter – whether you like it or not!


And talking about transfer!

Here is another area where we are prepared to lead.

Yesterday Margaret Ritchie and I called on the Executive to show leadership; we want a special meeting of the Executive next month to deal with the mess in our schools.

We want to see a temporary statutory transfer process in place next year, pending lasting agreement.
And, just in case the Minister of Education happens to be listening in, schools are not meant to be a battleground for class war and narrow ideological prejudices.

We are offering a practical way forward. 
To this year's P7 children, their parents and teachers, I say this - you expected better and you deserved better.

We will work in partnership to deliver a solution to this unnecessary mess. 

I look forward to hearing from our Education Spokesperson Basil McCrea in the debate later today.

Conservatives and Ulster Unionists

The theme of this Conference is “At The Heart Of The Union.”

And that’s where I believe Northern Ireland should be---not only in constitutional terms, but in party political and policy terms as well.

My own view remains that the best way of securing that goal is by cooperation, politically and electorally, with a national party.

The Union is a two-way process and it needs promotion both in Westminster and in Stormont.

David Cameron’s presence at last year’s conference, and William Hague’s today …

along with their on-the-ground support during the European election …

is the hard evidence we need that the Conservative Party is committed to the Union and to Northern Ireland.

Neither David Cameron nor William Hague needed to be here.

They chose to be here and I welcome the choice they have made.

At the heart of the Union

We are doing this to strengthen the Union …

and to provide a policy agenda and a policy commitment that no other party in Northern Ireland can provide.

But, with our Conservative colleagues, we have a vision of Northern Ireland being a partner in the Union ...

And the very fact that people now talk about the Ulster Unionists and the Conservatives in the same breath also sends out a very clear and very important message.

So no, I’m not going to lose any sleep over DUP or Sinn Fein criticisms.

How can the DUP talk of “Tory baggage” when they are joined at the hip to Sinn Fein?

The Union is not going to be secured and Northern Ireland is not going to be improved if the Ulster Unionist Party just twiddles its thumbs and whistles on the sidelines.

I believe our strategy of building this alliance with the Conservatives cements, secures and safeguards the Union.

David Cameron’s strong commitment to the Union, made at our conference last year, explains why this relationship is worth it.

Earlier this week, Gerry Adams said that the British Government had a moral responsibility to bring about a United Ireland.

Well, I have it on good authority that the next Government of the United Kingdom has a very different view of its responsibilities!

Mr Adams has been touring America trying to drum up support for his policy, which is designed to bring Irish American pressure on London and Dublin to be so-called persuaders for a united Ireland.

In many respects, Gerry Adams makes my case for me.

Picture the scene, when he and Sinn Fein sit down with a future British Government to try to discuss his plans for Irish Unity, and staring across the table from him is, potentially, a member of this party.

See where I am coming from?

I can think of no other action this party can take to better protect this part of the UK.

Real politics

But it doesn’t stop there – it cannot stop there.

We also need to steer our politics more towards the social and economic issues which households right across Northern Ireland are concerned about.

The people of Northern Ireland want to know what their politicians are doing about the economy, public spending, taxes, pensions, Europe, and the brave men and women of our armed forces.

This can best be achieved by working with a national party.

We are saying – Northern Ireland politics can be different.

With the Conservatives we are offering a political and electoral force which can actually deliver the difference which others can only dream about.

So our relationship with the Conservatives is about much more than constitutional politics; it’s about making politics connect with the real issues effecting the people of Northern Ireland.

This is real politics – the mainstream UK politics that Northern Ireland needs and deserves.

This is what it means to be at the heart of the Union.

Conclusion – changing politics in Northern Ireland

By next May the people of Northern Ireland will have had the chance to vote in a General Election.

The UUP, along with our jointly endorsed candidates from the Conservative Party, will be asking the electorate to support our vision …

our vision of real politics …

our vision of Northern Ireland at the heart of the Union

I want to see our Party shape events here in Northern Ireland …

but not only in Northern Ireland.

We are, after all, the Unionist party.

I want to see real Northern Ireland input into policies on the war in Afghanistan …

a conflict in which men and women from our Province, sons and daughters of our Party members, are bravely serving.

If Northern Ireland’s young men and women go to fight and defend our country …

why shouldn’t our MPs be in a position to form or implement the policies that hold their lives in their hands?

These are the sorts of real issues that I want to see this party involved in.

NOW we have a real opportunity to do so.

We have electoral and political opportunities NOW

We have an opportunity to make a significant breakthrough NOW

We NOW have the opportunity to really change the nature of politics in Northern Ireland.

We are NOW facing the forthcoming General Election with confidence.

Not just because we are confident of gaining seats …

but because we know we can NOW change politics in Northern Ireland for all of us.

William Hague's conference speech

It’s a huge pleasure to be back in this great city of Belfast and to be addressing your party conference as a Conservative and as a committed Unionist.

As a Unionist I believe with conviction that the future of all four parts of country lies together as one United Kingdom.

I believe that in an uncertain world our country remains a great force for good and that together the United Kingdom achieves much more than would ever be the case if we were apart.

And I believe in a United Kingdom that is tolerant, inclusive and diverse, at ease with its past and confident about its future.

Today, I want to talk to you about a Conservative approach to foreign policy and Britain’s role in the world.

I want to set out why the United Kingdom so desperately needs the change that only the election of a Conservative government can bring about.

And I want to explain how Northern Ireland can shape the future destiny of our country by helping to get rid of this discredited Labour government and putting David Cameron into Downing Street.

In a few months time, whenever Gordon Brown finally summons up the courage to call the election, the United Kingdom will have the opportunity to elect a new government.

And for the first time in decades Northern Ireland can play a real part in helping to shape the destiny of our country.

Politics in Northern Ireland has been dominated for too long by purely local parties that only contest seats here. They can never form the government of the United Kingdom. And their MPs can never be ministers in a government of the United Kingdom.

Only on rare occasions do they have an influence such as when the DUP backed Labour over 42-day detention. Otherwise they are at the margins.

It has always struck me as profoundly undemocratic that when the United Kingdom goes to the polls, Northern Ireland is effectively denied any real say on the outcome.

Now, with the coming together of our two great parties as a new force of Conservatives and Unionists that is about to change.

As Owen Paterson has said, at the next general election the Conservatives and Unionists will be the only party contesting every seat in every part of the United Kingdom.

And every Conservative and Unionist MP elected here in Northern Ireland will add one more to the total needed to make sure that David Cameron is our next prime minister.

Our aim is clear. We want to end the semi-detached political status of Northern Ireland and bring you back into the mainstream of United Kingdom politics.

It’s time to put Northern Ireland at the heart of the Union.

During the past year we’ve made great progress together.
The Joint Committee has been established. We’ve a modern campaign office just around the corner from this hotel that will help us run the most sophisticated and professional campaign Northern Ireland has seen.

I know a lot of people have put in a tremendous amount of hard work into this project and if I may I’d like to pay a particular tribute to my shadow cabinet colleague, Owen Paterson.

There’s barely week goes by when Owen isn’t here in Northern Ireland such is his commitment to what we are trying to achieve.

I’d also like to thank members of the Conservative Party in Northern Ireland, many of whom are here today.

For years they’ve been at the forefront of the campaign to bring national politics to Northern Ireland.
And it’s because of the agreement they forged with you that this is now really beginning to happen.
It builds on the Ulster Unionist Party's courageous work and achievements in establishing peace and power-sharing here.
Historically our parties have been closely linked. But today we are creating something much bolder and more significant than anything we’ve ever had in the past.
This is for the long term.
So David Cameron and I are delighted to give our full hearted support as together we build a genuinely new dynamic political force of Conservatives and Unionists.
Earlier this year I was proud to campaign for Jim Nicholson at the European elections.
And what a great result Jim achieved, winning more votes than any other unionist candidate.
Jim is now a full member of our Conservative team of MEPs dedicated to opposing greater European integration and to preserving British sovereignty.
The next step is to ensure that Conservative and Unionist MPs from Northern Ireland take their places as full members of David Cameron’s Conservative team at Westminster.
And I look forward to being back here at the next election campaigning to achieve precisely that.

Let me reiterate what David said to you last year.

Any Conservative and Unionist MP elected here will take the Conservative whip and have the same rights and responsibilities as every other Conservative MP from England, Scotland and Wales.

And that means being eligible to serve as ministers in a Conservative and Unionist government for the whole United Kingdom.

That’s a claim that no other party in Northern Ireland can make at the forthcoming election.

Just as we are the only party standing in Northern Ireland that can claim to have a genuine United Kingdom-wide approach and a real agenda for change to our country.

Only by backing the Conservatives and Unionists can you help to defeat Gordon Brown and through David Cameron bring about the change we need.

Change to fix our broken economy. Change to rebuild our broken society. And change to repair our broken politics.

We’ve now begun the process of selecting our candidates for the Westminster elections. We want to utilise existing talent of course. But we also want to draw upon new talent, including people who have never been involved in politics before.

And when we are selecting our criteria will be simple and clear. We are not interested in a person’s religion or community background, only whether they are up to the job.

It’s not where you’ve come from that matters to us but what you can offer as together we seek to build a shared future for everybody in Northern Ireland.

Of course Stormont is vitally important to that future.

The Conservative Party believes in devolution, just as we believe in the Union.

We support the political institutions that have been established over the past decade and want them to succeed.

Stormont plays a vital role in delivering local services – though I suspect I’m not alone in wishing that it would do it a little better and more efficiently.

Reg and Michael are of course doing great jobs in extremely difficult circumstances, as are the Ulster Unionist MLAs.

There’s no question of me or any of my colleagues seeking to interfere in matters that are devolved to Stormont – even if you decide to take a different course to one we adopt in England.

Devolution is about respecting the unique identities of each part of the United Kingdom. When it comes to local issues, local people should be in charge.

A Conservative government will not start unpicking what’s been achieved in recent years.

And we want to see devolution completed, including the transfer of policing and justice powers.

But it should only happen when there is genuine cross-community support. And building that surely requires the executive to start working like a genuine four-party coalition.

But for all Stormont’s importance, many of the great issues affecting Northern Ireland continue to be decided at Westminster.

Economic policy, taxation, welfare benefits, levels of public spending, the broad thrust of social policy, defence, Europe and foreign affairs – all of these are the responsibility of the United Kingdom government.

Northern Ireland needs to participate fully in the great national debates about all of these issues.

That’s another reason why Northern Ireland should be properly represented there by MPs who see the House of Commons as a full-time job of work.

It’s perfectly reasonable to be elected to Stormont or to Westminster. Yet we have some people here who are councillors, MLAs, MPs and Ministers.

The only person in British politics who rivals them for the number of jobs they have is Lord Mandelson...

So we will end the practice of double jobbing. In future, politicians will have to decide whether they want to be MLAs or MPs.

They can’t be both.

I know there’s another issue that exercises a great many people both inside and outside this room – the Presbyterian Mutual Society.

We understand the unfairness that investors feel, particularly when it was government assistance to other UK financial institutions that contributed to the problems in the first place. It’s another example of Labour’s mismanagement of the financial services sector.

So as David Cameron has said, there’s a real case for the prime minister to look again at this issue. And if he won’t do it in a meaningful and serious way then the next Conservative government will.

And one more thing. When I was leader of the opposition I accepted in good faith Tony Blair’s claim that fresh evidence warranted the establishment of a new inquiry into Bloody Sunday.

But what I never envisaged at the time was that it would take twelve years for Lord Saville to publish his report and that it would cost the taxpayer £200 million.

So as Owen Paterson said at our conference in Manchester, under a Conservative government there will be no more costly and open ended inquiries into the past.

It’s time for Northern Ireland to move forward.

As Shadow Foreign Secretary I have the opportunity to travel extensively around the world, listening and setting out the priorities for a Conservative government should we win the next election.

Only this week I’ve been in Washington where I held talks with the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.

And let me put on record my deep appreciation of the role of successive US administrations in helping to bring about the great improvements we see in Northern Ireland today.

A Conservative government will continue to work closely with our allies in the United States and our partners in the Republic of Ireland.

But what strikes me above all when talking to people abroad is the continuing admiration for our country, its values and the contribution we make on the world stage.

Take Afghanistan, where today our courageous men and women risk their lives to protect all of us from terrorism at home.

Of course I don’t need to give you any lessons in fighting terrorism. For over thirty years it was a daily occurrence.

You can be proud of the fact that your courage, and that of people across Northern Ireland from all parts of the community, ensured that democracy ultimately prevailed.

And we will always honour the police and our armed forces for the sacrifice they made.

Terrorism, whether here in the United Kingdom or abroad in Afghanistan must never be allowed to succeed.

Sadly in recent days here in Northern Ireland we have had a grim reminder of the past. Mercifully the attack in east Belfast did not achieve its murderous objective.

Others have not been so fortunate.

We remember today Sappers Mark Quinsey and Patrick Azimkar, and Constable Stephen Carroll, brutally murdered by dissidents in March this year.

The threat from dissident republicans is real. It must be met with the full force of the law. And it requires the fullest possible co-operation with the police from everybody.

Dissidents offer the community nothing.  Nor do the so called loyalists. They are thugs.  The decommissioning was a welcome start - and vindicated the tough stand we took in Parliament. But decommissioning must be accompanied by an end to all criminal activity.

It is time for us all to resolve that Northern Ireland will continue to move forward. 

UUP Conference Feed

Friday, 23 October 2009

Anti UCUNF letter penned by yesterday's men.

On the day that Ian Parsley was confirmed as the Conservative nominee for the North Down candidature, and on the eve of the UUP party conference, it is my understanding that several senior Ulster Unionists have signed an open letter to Sir Reg Empey, attacking the party's Tory linkup.

The names which are being mooted are predictable - Roy Garland, Chris McGimpsey and others. They are no longer representatives, but retain a certain residual influence. Though make no mistake about it, these are yesterday's men. Aging dinosaurs who have opposed the deal since its inception.

I would argue that these differences have been allowed, for too long, to simmer beneath the surface. It is better that they are brought out into the open, addressed and the Conservatives and Unionists pact can move on with the backing of those who are committed to it.

It's interesting, and instructive, to reproduce Sir Reg Empey's answer to ANOTHER derogatory Garland article, which appeared in the Irish News last week.

Roy Garland’s column is always thought-provoking. There are times, however, when it appears he is more interested in being provocative than in stimulating thinking.

Unfortunately, last week’s column was an instance of this.

Roy’s now slightly obsessive attacks on the Ulster Unionist Party’s restored relationship with the Conservative Party appear to suggest that the relationship is a bad thing because it strengthens the Union . My party makes absolutely no apology for its conviction that the best hope for a shared, pluralist future for all the people of Northern Ireland is within the United Kingdom .

Contrary to what Roy suggests, building the East-West relationship within these islands does not undermine in any way the importance of a positive North-South relationship. Like many other unionists, it would be my view that despite the Agreement equally affirming both relationships, too much political activity in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland has focussed exclusively on North-South.

The UUP-Conservative relationship is aimed at bringing Northern Ireland into the mainstream of UK politics. It is my conviction that this will strengthen, not undermine, a positive North-South relationship.

Roy also appears to suggest that the only Catholics who are pro-Union are eccentrics. Successive surveys in Northern Ireland suggest that such an offensive allegation is entirely unfounded, with significant numbers of Catholics in Northern Ireland indicating that they are supportive of Northern Ireland ’s constitutional position within the United Kingdom . The Ulster Unionist Party is keenly aware of its responsibility to reach out to all sections of our community who are pro-Union – irrespective of background.

None of this detracts from our commitment to work in partnership with nationalists, especially our colleagues in the SDLP, to promote the common good. An authentic sharing of power between unionists and nationalists – rather than the cantonisation and carve-up we see in the DUP-Sinn Fein approach to government – is necessary to serve all the people of Northern Ireland. Unlike Roy , the UUP refuses to accept that the DUP and Sinn Fein sharing the spoils of office equates to power-sharing.

Moving politics forward in Northern Ireland , whether in 1998 or in 2009, requires us to confront challenges and think in new ways. Roy is welcome to join us in this venture.

UUP Conference - live

As I intimated in the post below, the UUP is set to hold its 2009 conference, tomorrow, at the Europa Hotel Belfast. Three Thousand Versts, in conjunction with Open Unionism, will be covering the keynote speeches live. The Coveritlive feed will appear above, providing real time updates from the hall, as William Hague, Michael McGimpsey and Sir Reg Empey deliver the key addresses. Follow the action on Twitter @3000Versts and @openunionism. We’ll pick up contributions #uupconf2009.

'No Pope Here'. DUP reps and activists join Facebook hate group.

Have a glance at this charming Facebook group entitled ‘No Pope Here’. It includes such heart-warming (and grammatical) sentiments as, “wats the point him goin ther its basicly a death wish for him its like him sayin KILL ME NOW LOL” and “no pope is welcum here keep him out fgau NO SURRENDER X”. Lovely, I’m sure you’ll agree.

It should hardly be surprising, but a 3000 Versts reader has pointed me in the direction of the membership which includes – DUP MLAs Ian McCrea and Trevor Clarke, Councillors Ian Stevenson and Pam Lewis (who runs Sammy Wilson’s office), Gordon Lyons (Wilson’s researcher) and John Hussey. Less predictable is the adherence of Ivan Djordjevic from Serbia, or a fansite for Eric Bristow, the darts player.

Make no mistake about it, this is a hate site, and DUP representatives and employees have gleefully signed up. This is the nature of the party with which the UUP are urged to contract an electoral deal. If the DUP does wish to strike an electoral pact it should do so with fellow extremists and hatemongers in the BNP.

Positive message on Stormont could form one half of hopeful conference for UUP.

Last year the Ulster Unionist conference proved a heady affair. Fresh from striking a historic deal with the Conservative party, Sir Reg Empey introduced David Cameron to delegates at the Ramada hotel. The Tory leader delivered an exciting address, steeped in unionism, and received a tumultuous reception. This year Cameron’s deputy, William Hague, will attempt to rekindle enthusiasm, which occasionally, during the intervening ten months, has appeared to diminish as UUP members have become reconciled to repercussions of the Conservatives and Unionists electoral pact. With a Westminster poll imminent, European success secured and senior Tories still committed to a vital deal for Northern Ireland, there is no credible reason why the atmosphere at Belfast’s Europa hotel should not be equally buoyant, tomorrow morning.

The 2010 general election will preoccupy political parties for the next number of months, but, in conjunction with SDLP minister Margaret Ritchie, the Ulster Unionist leader has delivered a gutsy performance in the Belfast Telegraph this morning, centred on local politics. In an article which will, presumably, pre-empt themes to be developed at conference tomorrow, the minister for the Department of Employment and Learning, and his Department of Social Development colleague, have delivered a stinging indictment of the SF / DUP coalition’s performance at Stormont. Empey and Ritchie contend,

“The DUP and Sinn Fein stagger between running the Executive as a two-party carve-up rather than a four-party coalition and using megaphone diplomacy to verbally abuse each other.”

The analysis of government in Northern Ireland, delivered by two of its members, is as revealing as it is unsurprising. This is an executive in which the two smaller parties play a largely aesthetic part, outside the specific duties of their departments. Collective responsibility is a concept employed merely to provide political shelter for Sinn Féin and their DUP allies, whilst depriving the Assembly of a genuine means to hold the executive to account.

This article lays out three main areas where devolved government has manifestly failed. Most conspicuously in education, where the minister has presided over deregulated transfer chaos. Empey and Ritchie call for all party talks in order to sort out Caitriona Ruane’s debacle, an offer which the Sinn Féin MLA has thus far rejected. Furthermore,

“We are also calling for a single-item agenda Executive meeting to be held before the end of November to allow the Executive to at last discuss post-primary transfer. As P7 children, parents and teachers begin to go through the difficulties of the unregulated tests, it is time for the Executive to show leadership.”

The meeting would pledge to deliver an interim transfer process, in order that parents and children might not be subject to anarchy, whilst a longer term solution is sought.

The thrust of the article is the desire to establish authentic four party participation in government and facilitate genuine scrutiny of the executive’s work by the Assembly. The ideas for education are just the most prominent example where a dividend could result.

The DUP, in particular, has denied until relatively recently, the existence of a budget shortfall. It has remained adamant that the original Programme for Government and spending plans were applicable, however the economic climate might change. The UUP and SDLP are suggesting that an Assembly Committee should be constituted, charged with re-examining the budget and plans for public spending. There is also a demand, in the article, for a renewed impetus for shared future, and action on the strategy, now, rather than at an indeterminate date in the future.

This is good, strident, relevant stuff from Ritchie and Empey, aimed at making the existing arrangement work better. It shows that middle ground politics can offer ideas for cooperative, functional government, which are unlikely to come to fruition under a DUP / SF carve-up. In conjunction with a determined, committed approach to the Conservatives and Unionists deal, it offers a positive message to articulate at tomorrow’s conference.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Foreign Secretary or font of pre election bile?

Britain's Foreign Secretary David Miliband laughing at the Labour Party Conference 2009.
I have registered my apprehension, on this blog, that the ECR group, which the Conservatives have helped constitute in the European Parliament, contains unpleasant, populist nationalists from the former Soviet bloc. I believe that the Tories should have considered more closely the character of the various organisations with which they were about to associate in Europe. It is true, however, that the groups within the European Parliament are, by necessity, alliances of convenience, forged between parties on the basis of the most amorphous common principles. Such is the character of EU politics.

MEPs within a group, and the parties from which they are drawn, might share very broad objectives or a common outlook as regards the European Parliament. They certainly do not, by anyone’s understanding, endorse the domestic platforms of each of their groupmates. Which is why I believe that, the ECR having already been formed, Conservatives do not need to defend the Latvian Fatherland and Freedom Party (to take a prominent example) and they should not attempt to do so.

The Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, has led a campaign, aided zealously by the Guardian newspaper, aimed at smearing the Tories by association. Member parties of the Conservatives’ European group, he has insinuated, are far right, anti-Semites, seething with racist hatred and extremism. To this end he has adduced an inconsistent armoury of evidence, some of which does have unpleasant connotations, some of which is, frankly, nonsense. It has been a loud and orchestrated attack, coordinated with the help of sympathetic media, and we can be certain that it has almost nothing to do with genuine concerns about Conservative connections.

Fatherland and Freedom is the party most frequently cited by Miliband and the Guardian, due to the Waffen SS commemoration which a number of its members have attended. If Labour’s concerns were authentic, and were grounded in real anxiety that an association with the British Conservative party might provide legitimacy for an extremist group, they would surely concentrate on the discriminatory language and citizenship policies which Latvian ethno-nationalist revisionism actually creates, in practice, rather than redundant, though repugnant, ceremonies which symbolise its precepts.

Now, with rumours rife that Hillary Clinton expressed concern about the Conservative party’s European links, sources in Washington have suggested that the Foreign Secretary has ‘been stirring the pot’ in an attempt to poison relationships between the Us government and any incoming Tory administration. Given the tenacity with which Miliband has pursued this issue at home, it is a credible suggestion. It also brings into question the ability of Labour ministers to do their jobs responsibly, and with Britain’s best interests paramount, when their priority is clearly spewing pre election poison towards the Conservative party.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Paisley hatchet job available soon to discerning readers

It’s worth mentioning a new book due to be launched in November. The Belfast Telegraph’s resident politics attack dog, David Gordon, has penned ‘The Fall of the House of Paisley’.

Gordon promises to “pinpoint the structural flaws in the House of Paisley and shine an uncompromising light on the Northern Ireland political class”. The book is available from the Three Thousand Versts Bookstore.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

The Beard Ambition World Tour - HELLO SWANSEA!

From teargas, sorry ‘léargas’, the virtual tree from which the wise old owl of Sinn Féin dispenses pellets of ‘insight’,

“This blog travels to Wales on Tuesday – to Swansea – to speak to the British Irish Parliamentary Assembly. I will tell that forum that while Irish republicans want our rights, we do not seek to deny the rights of anyone else. We want justice for all and privilege for none.”

A paragraph which teaches us, not only that the Provos’ president is scheduled to address BIPA’s latest plenary session this morning, but that Gerry Adams has taken to describing himself, in the third person, as a ‘blog’.

‘The blog’ has, in recent months, been on a veritable world tour promoting ‘Irish unity’. Slugger O’Toole has a preview of what he (it?) will say on the latest leg, other than, presumably, “HELLO SWANSEA!”.

Two passages in particular jump out from amongst the leaden, Orwellian Shinnerspeak which ‘the blog’ intends to deliver. In deference to the ‘east-west’ sensibility of the Assembly, they allude to Britain and to unionism (although never the twain shall meet). Brace yourselves.

“The peoples of Britain have a duty to themselves, to unionists in particular, to the Irish in general and even to the world to stand up and speak their opinion on the issue of the reunification of Ireland.”

For the sake of brevity we’ll set pedantry aside and assume that ‘the blog’ means Great Britain rather than the state which is commonly known as Britain and that the unionists to whom he refers live in Northern Ireland. Otherwise we’re going to get into a whole confusing, talking to oneself tangle.

Suffice to say that, in a nationalist’s lexicon, ‘peoples’ rather than ‘people’ is in itself a loaded distinction. And evidently ‘the blog’ isn’t banking on the opinion spoken being that the ‘reunification of Ireland’ is a bad idea.

The Good Friday Agreement, which he is wont to cite amorphously, but reluctant to reference specifically, determines that constitutional change will rest upon the assent of the electorate in Northern Ireland. Ir is not dependent, you will notice, on a range of international opinion to be consulted at venues on a World Tour. I’d imagine the ‘peoples of Britain’ are, by and large, happy with that current arrangement.

‘The blog’ continues,

“We need to look at what they (unionists) mean by their sense of Britishness and be willing to explore and to be open to new concepts. We need to look at ways in which the unionist people can find their place in a new Ireland. In other words it needs to be their United Ireland.”

That, for the uninitiated, is ‘the blog’s’ concession to ‘reaching out’ to unionists. Alas it simply demonstrates that, for all his years in politics, he has been neither ‘looking’, nor listening, to date.

What unionists ‘mean’ by ‘their sense of Britishness’ is simply that they ARE British and wish to remain part of the United Kingdom.

A united Ireland which unionism owns would be, by definition, by necessity, part of the UK.

Without membership of the United Kingdom, or at least without the existence of an aspiration to become a member of the United Kingdom, unionism does not exist.

The sense in which ‘the blog’ uses the word ‘unionism’ is, effectively, a category error. He is using a political term to describe something of an entirely different character - an ethnic or ethno-religious group.

Ulster protestants might be reconciled, eventually, to an independent united Ireland, but unionists can not be, unless they are to renounce their unionism.

‘The blog’s’ inaccurate use of terminology should be excused. After all, even purported unionists often lazily employ ‘unionist’ as little more than an ethno-religious label.

More serious is the implication that unionists’ ‘sense of Britishness’ is not what it appears to be, or what unionists believe it to be. It could be anything, in fact, other than a genuine, legitimate political attachment to the United Kingdom. What it ACTUALLY is is yet to be determined (but 'the blog' is working on it).

In the comments zone at Slugger, Fair Deal speculates that ‘the blog’ is laboriously moving beyond a ‘false consciousness’ interpretation of Ulster unionism. I suppose that, insofar as his speech suggests that the philosophy is something freestanding, homegrown and worthy of consideration, rather than an aberration implanted by dastardly Brits, Sinn Féin’s President has edged forward.

If he is ever to realise his stated aspiration of equality, however, he will have to start taking unionists' aspirations at face value.

SNP's unconvincing Order snub

Efrafandays reports the SNP’s unconvincing reaction to the news that the Orange Order, in Scotland, will encourage its members to vote for anyone other than a nationalist, in the forthcoming general election. Party sources are suggesting that comments from Grand Master, Ian Wilson, represent an embarrassment for Labour (and presumably the other unionist parties), rather than a blow to the SNP.

Alec observes that Salmond’s party is not without its own bedfellows known for an intransigent take on religion. The Scottish-Islamic Foundation is intricately linked to the SNP and has received a full third of all ‘equality’ funding since 2007. Its spokespersons have advocated the introduction of Sharia Law to Scottish jurisprudence and championed state funded Islamic schools, despite evidence that such institutions can exercise a radicalising influence.

Whilst the SIF is entitled to pursue its chosen projects, the SNP’s patronage exemplifies its approach to sectional interests. Rather than consider all Scots equal, individual citizens who happen to be possessed of certain religious, ethnic and cultural characteristics which should be protected and cherished, and appealing for support on that basis, the nationalists see a society made up of atomised communities. Through a system of patronage the party attempts to ‘franchise’ group interests (and money) to its preferred NGO (or Quango), in return for its support for separatism.

Ironically, if the Orange Order were not, by definition, unionist, it is exactly the type of religious / sectional organisation which Salmond might seek to court for nationalism.

Monday, 19 October 2009

FSB chief claims Georgia - al Qaeda cooperation

The Pankisi Gorge in Georgia, which borders Chechnya, has long provided a transit route for money, weapons and militants into and out of the Russian republic. It has been alleged that al Qaeda operates training camps in the region.

Alexander Bortnikov, head of Russia’s FSB, has gone further and claimed that his security organs have gathered audio evidence that Georgia has been actively involved in training and lending safe passage to terrorists operating in Chechnya and Dagestan.

Naturally the Georgian authorities have denied strenuously any cooperation with al Qaeda. Tbilisi can point to forces which it has contributed to struggles against Islamist terror, in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Bortinkov’s allegations might simply represent another front in the propaganda war between Russia and Georgia. However President Saakashvili has demonstrated a penchant for rash and underhand tactics, as well as pathological dishonesty.

It is not beyond the realms of possibility that Georgia has something to hide.

Banning Griffin now would fuel the BNP's persecution complex.

Popular opinion on Nick Griffin’s scheduled appearance on Question Time divides broadly into two categories. First, the argument runs that extremism is nurtured in dark corners and the way to defeat it is through open, democratic debate. Second, it is recognised that an organisation like the BNP craves publicity, and, given that all reasonable and reasoning people agree that its views are abhorrent, it should be denied it wherever possible.

Unfortunately it has been a bad weekend for those who subscribe to the latter view. The debate on BNP participation has already commanded many inches of newsprint. Whether one agrees with the BBC’s decision to include Griffin in its panel, or not, the path of least resistance must surely now dictate that he appears. If he were replaced at this late juncture it could not fail to nourish the erroneous sense of grievance on which his party thrives.

In Northern Ireland we have seen the way in which extreme political views can be insinuated into the mainstream, until they become, effectively, unremarkable. Griffin will have ambitions to achieve a similar outcome. In common with another rabidly ethno nationalist party, Sinn Féin, the BNP’s support grows in accordance with its persecution complex.

It is too late to deny the BNP publicity; it is possible to avoid needlessly fuelling its sense of persecution.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Demise of a fine blog

In the assumption that his site hasn't been hacked, I'm sad to learn that one of my favourite bloggers, Scottish Unionist, is hanging up his keyboard. His site will be sorely missed. I hope that he finds time, some day, to share again his thought provoking vision online, with its emphasis on Scotland within the United Kingdom and a strong European Union.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Let's hear the pro-pact UUP voices, loud and clear.

The Irish News columnist and South Belfast Ulster Unionist member, Roy Garland, does not like his party’s alliance with the Conservatives. He has written another virulent piece defending his constituency association’s call for ‘unionist unity’ in South Belfast and rubbishing the UUP’s decision to run joint candidates with the Tories. Garland also rejects any notion that stepping down to let the DUP have a free run would amount to a return to sectarian headcount politics, citing, as evidence, his own record of cross community engagement.

I have not the slightest problem with Garland’s efforts towards reconciliation. Neither do I question the sincerity of his commitment to working class communities. I do, however, object to the ethno-nationalist bent which colours his understanding of Northern Ireland politics and I have difficulty with a strain of unionism which identifies the little Ulstermen of the DUP as fellow travellers, yet dismisses pan-UK unionism as an illusion created by perfidious Englishmen.

During the early days of ‘Three Thousand Versts’ I wrote, with disapproval, about ideas propagated by the Union Group, which Garland organises. I found that its documents were based on a purely ethno-nationalist interpretation of the divide in Northern Ireland. Its aspirations towards bridge building were sincerely felt, but its unionism accepted too many of Irish nationalism’s assumptions. It discarded, carelessly, everything which could and should distinguish unionism from nationalism. In so doing it ceded to nationalism unionism's best arguments.

Arthur Aughey’s definition of nationalism: an attempt to infer the inseparability of political allegiance and cultural identity comes to mind, reading the Union Group’s material. In contrast, I argued in my old blogpost,

“The task for liberal (Northern Irish) unionists should be articulating unionism in such a way that the Irish national identity is comfortably encompassed within the philosophy, as it is in actuality within the United Kingdom.”

I was hinting at an attempt to imagine a more conventional political cleavage within Northern Irish politics, as opposed to the entrenchment of our form of identity politics envisaged by the Ourselves Alone coalition. An effort to sever an automatic connection between identity and allegiance if you will. From reading Garland’s articles, I can only assume that he is intractably opposed to such a vision.

It is, I would suggest, a strange inversion of logic to castigate the UUP leadership for “looking over their shoulders even though a united Ireland, as traditionally understood, is not on the cards and rhetoric about “saving the Union” is now obsolete” or giving up on a “bright new future” of enhanced relationships, whilst simultaneously seeking to cement candidates chosen along sectarian lines. In this future, which Garland champions, where a united Ireland is not a possibility, why would any ‘unionist’ candidate be more acceptable than, for example, a moderate nationalist? If the Union is safe, then why wouldn’t everyone in Northern Ireland be given the chance to choose the UK government? That is a basic political right which should accompany their British citizenship and Northern Ireland’s membership of the Kingdom.

I can understand the anxiety which UUP members with traditional socialist beliefs feel when confronted with an electoral pact with a party they dislike. Given that the Conservatives and Ulster Unionists had been estranged for a generation, there was bound to be a disgruntled rump that opposed the deal, and even a chance of resignations.

Sir Reg Empey was right, however, to suppose that such possible divisions did not form a compelling reason not to pursue reconciliation. Under David Cameron the Tories are articulating a new conservatism, wedded to ‘One Nation’ ideals, which lends itself to consensus. Meaningful involvement in UK politics is too great a prize for any thinking unionist to reject. And, from a purely tactical perspective, the UUP was desperately in need of an idea in order to reinvigorate its electoral chances.

Although a degree of intra party dissent was inevitable, its tenor has generally been rather poor. We’ve had a saga around new Labour loyalist, Sylvia Hermon, which has dragged on interminably and has included a campaign of rather disingenuous sniping in the media. We’ve had Roy Garland’s column, with its disparate concoction of alleged class betrayal, anti English jingoism, appeals to communal (Northern Irish) unionist unity and SDLP esque, ‘mustn’t upset the apple cart by involving a British government too closely in Northern Ireland’ shtick. His constituency party in South Belfast has demanded an agreed candidate and there have been other more mooted hints of protest from vested interests within the party, notably the Assembly group, nervous about threatened fiefdoms.

There is one element of Garland’s analysis which does motion towards the truth. “The UUP’s dalliance with the Tories is a desperate attempt to stave off oblivion”, he alleges. The alternative to the Conservatives and Unionists pact is certainly discredited oblivion for the UUP and half hearted commitment to the deal is the best means to ensure that the party consigns itself to a moribund future of fringe irrelevance. It is time that proponents of the deal within the Ulster Unionists began to make themselves heard as loudly, clearly and unequivocally as the doubters.

Westminster remains a pressing priority.

I arrived back from blizzard conditions in the Czech Republic late last night, and I haven’t had a proper opportunity to examine news from the last four days, as yet. Therefore I offer a rather tentative toe to dip back into the scalding pool of political blogging.

Mick Fealty has picked up on a piece carried in the Lisburn Star, which suggests that Basil McCrea will not pursue parliamentary candidature in Lagan Valley, preferring to concentrate on his Assembly duties.

Mick wonders whether Westminster is set to become a ‘second tier chamber’ for unionists, by which I presume he means a less pressing priority than Stormont.

Looking at the quote from McCrea which is included in the article, two aspects of it are interesting. First there are the MLA’s ‘significant objections’ to double jobbing. These are important and the UUP should not be tempted to soften its line on the issue, as the election approaches. If any MPs are returned to Westminster from the UUP’s Assembly team, they must be immediately replaced, by cooption, at Stormont.

Second is McCrea’s contention that, “the focus of all decisions that affect Lagan Valley is at Stormont and that is where I need to be ….this is a clear indication of where my priorities lie for the people of Lagan Valley”, a statement with which I have more of a problem.

A central premise of the Conservatives and Unionists coalition is the notion that crucial decisions are taken at Westminster, and Northern Ireland needs proper representation there, devoted to involving itself fully in national politics. It is also a fairly crucial tenet of unionism that Parliament remains sovereign.

McCrea is entitled to pursue his career at Stormont, rather than seeking to become an MP. Indeed given his policing board duties it makes sense for him to do so. Clearly he feels that his constituents can be better served by this course of action.

It is important, however, that in justifying his decision he doesn’t undermine the message that Westminster remains a vital priority for unionists, worthy of the name.