The broad theme is that the Conservatives are set to hand their Ulster Unionist partners a ‘stranglehold of power’ (I kid you not). The piece is manifestly ludicrous and rests on the type of insidious logic which has consigned British people in Northern Ireland to the status of second class citizens politically.
It’s actually worth deconstructing some of the main points, just to demonstrate how utterly preposterous this so-called piece of journalism is. Clearly Sam Coates has been fed a line by Labour spindoctors and has swallowed it hook line and sinker.
“The Conservatives were accused last night of threatening the Northern Ireland peace process by backing changes that could give the Ulster Unionists a stranglehold on power.”
Were they indeed? Well a cursory examination of the facts will confirm that the UUP are currently the third biggest Assembly party, so if these accusations are to be treated seriously by The Times of London, then they had better be good.
“The party is also prepared to intervene if Sinn Féin becomes the largest party after next year’s elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly. It would consider downgrading the post of the Province’s First Minister, which normally goes to the largest party, to prevent a walkout by Unionists — a move that would effectively prevent Martin McGuinness, the former IRA commander, from holding the position.”
A few things occur at this point. 1) The use of the word ‘also’ suggests that this is an additional accusation. Is it actually separate or is the first accusation contingent on the second? I suspect the latter, because there is no separate evidence adduced to sustain the former accusation. Therefore 'also' is completely redundant. 2) The posts of First Minister and Deputy First Minister are currently co-equal. Is the Conservative party proposing to downgrade the FM position in order to make it subordinate to the Deputy First Minister? 3) The post of First Minister didn’t ‘normally’ go to the largest party before the St Andrews Agreement. The Belfast Agreement, endorsed by referenda on both sides of the Irish border, arranged that the largest designation would take the post.
“The proposals have led to accusations that David Cameron, who has insisted that he is a Unionist, is playing with fire in Northern Ireland. Conservatives insist that they would do nothing to jeopardise the peace process created by the Good Friday agreement. But there remains suspicion at their decision to field candidates jointly with the Ulster Unionist Party, under the banner “Ulster Conservatives and Unionists — Joint Force”.”
At this juncture you might wish to check whether The Times website is actually redirecting you to the Andersonstown News! David Cameron has ‘insisted he is a unionist’? He supports the maintenance of the United Kingdom, he leads the Conservative and Unionist party! In which respect is there even a shadow of a doubt to be cast on Mr Cameron’s unionism? What is unionism if it is not an aspiration to maintain the integrity of the United Kingdom?
On the next point, you’ll be way ahead of me already, The N in UCUNF doesn’t stand for Joint Mr Coates. Can Rupert Murdock not afford decent subeditors or do you not know your topic?
“But Owen Paterson, the Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, has promised to review the way in which the post of First Minister is awarded, which could lead to Sinn Féin being frozen out. “There is no timetable on this and there is no hurry,” he said. “But it has always been my party’s intention to negotiate the review mechanisms with all parties in Northern Ireland. This could be a long time coming but it would be done in close contact with all the existing parties and I think if it happens it would lead to a better Northern Ireland.””
Before we start on this paragraph, you might want to read it again. Owen Paterson has promised a review of the mechanisms with ‘all parties in Northern Ireland’. Which ‘could lead to Sinn Féin being frozen out’. If Sinn Féin were involved in a process of review, how would it be ‘frozen out’? Would the party be chucked out of the Executive? No, there is no such suggestion. Would the party be consulted before any change to the OFMDFM mechanism was made? Yes. That is stated clearly. I repeat again. The FM / DFM posts are co-equal. The Belfast Agreement allowed for a simple nomination process which involved the Assembly, rather than the two biggest parties.
On last night’s Hearts and Minds the current Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, indicated that he was not fazed by the prospect of Joint First Ministers bereft of any differentiation. If Martin McGuinness believes such a measure is irrelevant, why is The Times attempting to insinuate that it would ‘freeze out’ Sinn Féin and represents ‘playing with fire’?
“Speaking to the BBC, he added: “We would like to move towards voluntary coalition.” That has raised fears that the pro-United Kingdom UUP and DUP might join forces to create a Unionist “block vote” in the assembly, undermining efforts to leave sectarianism behind.”
Every party, apart from Sinn Féin, has acknowledged that mandatory coalition is not sustainable in perpetuity. No party has seriously suggested that voluntary coalition could operate without some type of cross community mechanism. If there are genuine fears that unionists think that it is a viable strategy to establish a bloc and cut nationalists out of government, then they are held only by people living in cloud cuckoo land!
“Gerry Kelly, a junior Sinn Féin minister in the Province’s executive, said: “There can be no tampering with the institutions. There will be no return to Unionist one-party misrule in the North of Ireland.””
The institutions have been tampered with already, so we shouldn’t take Gerry Kelly’s inflexibility too seriously. But he is certainly right that there will not be a return to one unionist party, or one unionist party rule. There is no serious strategy to return to one party unionist rule and I’m certain that it is not a possibility that Kelly takes seriously. However, it is election year and Labour will attempt to hit out at the Conservatives with every means at its disposal hence,
“Stephen Pound, a Labour member of the Commons Northern Ireland Committee, warned: “This is the bonfire of bipartisanship. This leads to a nightmare vision in which a combined Unionism always turns to the Conservative Party, forcing nationalists and republicans to look to Dublin. For the Conservatives to imply the carefully constructed architecture is subject to a wholesale review opens the door to chaos and the end of any form of power-sharing in Northern Ireland.””
You have to wonder whether Pound has followed anything which has happened in Northern Ireland in the last twenty / thirty years! The Dublin government has already taken on the role of guarantor for nationalist aspirations. The ‘carefully constructed architecture’ has been subject to review mechanisms which were BUILT INTO the Belfast Agreement. People within Northern Ireland want to remain within the United Kingdom and the London government is their government, with a duty to respond to their aspirations.
“Under the 2006 St Andrews agreement the job of Deputy First Minister is automatically handed to the second-largest party – in effect forcing the two opponents to work together and depriving Northern Ireland of an official opposition. The Tories say that, over time, they would want to see a move to a more normal form of government.”
1) Under the Belfast Agreement a much simpler system operated. That Agreement established the ‘carefully constructed architecture’ which Stephen Pound was keen to protect. 2) Why on earth shouldn’t the prospect of functional government be an aspiration for a Conservative party which organises in Northern Ireland? That is the aspiration of every party which has the people of Northern Ireland’s interests at heart.
“But Sinn Féin made clear that there were significant differences between that and a wider review driven by Westminster. Mr Kelly added: “There is no issue of renegotiating or reviewing the power-sharing bodies. Given the nationalist experience there can be no question of a return to Unionist majority rule here.””
There is no suggestion that a wider review ‘driven by Westminster’ is planned. There is no suggestion that unionist majority rule is sought. The article doesn’t produce a shred of evidence.
“Government sources make clear that they do not agree with the Tory strategy. One senior figure said: “Our position is that the institutional arrangements set up by the Good Friday and St Andrews agreements are clear about how the executive will be constituted.” However the source added: “The parties’ decision to look at issues about how the executive will function is a matter for them.””
1) The St Andrews Agreement changed the institutional arrangements established by the Belfast Agreement. Which is why there is a mechanism on OFMDFM which no longer commands support.
2) The Conservatives have made it quite clear that any review will be based on the parties’ input!
Hence the final paragraph, which rather exposes the entire article for the nonsense it is.
“A Conservative spokesman said last night: “There was always a feeling the current arrangement wasn’t perfect. But any change in how the assembly works would have to happen locally. We have always felt the local parties are best placed to sort this out. We are not going to take a proactive role.””
Now countless papers base news articles on flimsy, kite-flying premises offered by party spin-doctors, but The Times added this editorial which we can interpret as an attack on any national party organising on a pro-Union basis in Northern Ireland.
That is an ignorant, condescending and downright preposterous point of view. And the article which formed its jumping off point was poorly researched, confusing and misleading.