Monday, 31 May 2010

'Daveolution' good for the UK, but it is still a risky moment for the Union.

In Saturday's Belfast Telegraph I examined the prospects of Cameron's government, successfully balancing the interests of Westminster, England and the devolved regions (no link yet available - I'm not sure Saturday's opinion pages actually reach the website).

The prime minister has promised that his new government’s relationship with the devolved regions will be distinguished by ’respect’.  He envisages an era of cooperation and communication between London and the executives in Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh.
’Daveolution’ received a cautious but cordial hearing when Cameron toured the UK capitals.   However, the four First Ministers’ substantive response emerged at a meeting in Stormont last Monday.  There they discussed forming a common front against spending cuts imposed by Westminster and demanded a slice of London’s Olympic regeneration money. 
Cameron is acutely aware that he will have to govern with sensitivity if he is to be considered a prime minister for the whole of the United Kingdom.  Nationalist separatism on the Celtic fringes is one thing, but many unionists in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales are also rabidly anti-Conservative and increasingly protective of their regional independence.  
Add an incipient feeling in England, that it is disadvantaged by devolution elsewhere, and the Conservative - Liberal government has inherited a potentially volatile mix.  Those English grievances, if they were to gather momentum, could yet prove the greatest threat to the UK’s integrity.  
I praise the government's flexibility over deferring cuts.
The decision to offer Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales a chance to defer spending cuts until next year is a clever move by Chief Secretary to the Treasury, David Laws.  It sidesteps an early confrontation with devolved executives, who have already set their budgets twelve months ahead, and puts the ball firmly back in their court. 
This flexible attitude could form a leitmotif for the Cameron government’s relationship with its regional counterparts.  The prime minister is an instinctive decentraliser who is prepared to hand over initiative to Executives, local councils and even the general public, if they are willing to accept responsibility.
The difficulty is that, although devolved administrations might urge Cameron to give them as much leeway as possible, they will still rush to palm off any subsequent criticism on his government.  If the prime minister’s first instinct is to mollify the three executives, he will store up problems for the future.  
I point out that the devolved regions must pay their way.
Salmond et al will be particularly anxious to ensure that England is required to shoulder a disproportionate burden when it comes to reducing the deficit.  Some unionists’ pathological regionalism, and the anti-Tory agenda of Labour politicians in Scotland and Wales, will amplify a clamour from separatists to spare the devolved nations and hit the English hard.
Cameron should resist their call.  Already there is an undercurrent of dissatisfaction at the government’s use of the Barnett Formula to divvy up £6 billion worth of cuts across the UK.  The perception is growing that the Formula is unfair, particularly to impoverished regions of England which suffer levels of deprivation comparable to anywhere in Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales.    
The first set of ‘efficiencies’ are largely deliverable by reducing waste but dissatisfaction could turn to revolt if cuts in front line English services are not replicated across the UK.  Nationalism in England, to date, has been content to shelter rather coyly under the umbrella of a Campaign for an English Parliament, but it is primed to exploit any change in the public mood.  
Cameron and his government are aware of the balancing act they must perform to avoid inflicting damage on the Union.  But awareness is not enough.  The ‘respect agenda’ must be accompanied by action, as well as words.  And the neglected, but spectre of English grievance cannot be ignored.    

Friday, 28 May 2010

Order has no positive role to play in unionist politics.

None other than Tom Elliott MLA, senior Orangeman, has urged the Order to stay out of politics.  His heckles had been raised by Robert Saulters, Grand Master of the Orange Order, who last weekend called for a single unionist party.

It says something that Elliott, who has spoken enthusiastically on the theme of ‘unionist unity’, felt moved to slap down Saulters.  The Grand Master is closely linked to the DUP, and indeed he signed Ian Paisley Junior’s nomination papers for the Westminster election.

Clearly Elliott feels that there was a partisan subtext behind Saulters’ comments which ran beyond concern for the Union.  He is quite right that the Orange Order should not intervene in politics, because its interventions are usually disastrous for unionism.

Since its formation, the Orange has tended to undermine constructive unionism and bolster its regressive wing.  Indeed the Order, which might present itself as a stalwart of the Union now, took a while to be convinced of its merits.

Senior Orangemen were leading proponents of Dublin rule for the first part of the nineteenth century.  Government from Westminster threatened to introduce a modern form of citizenship which, they rightly feared,, might even extend the franchise to Catholics.

So the Order stayed neutral on the Union and a substantial section of its leadership actively advocated a return to a Dublin parliament.  British allegiance wasn’t allowed to trump anti-Catholic prejudice.

While Liberal and Peelite Conservative voices in Ulster championed the Union for its ability to reconcile Protestant and Catholic neighbours, sections of the Order raged against Catholic emancipation, a Catholic university, the Reform Act, anything which might make Irish Catholics feel comfortable and included in the United Kingdom.

Which meant that Orange voices were amongst the most vocal campaigning against the development of the tolerant, modern British state which we enjoy today.

Despite all the public relations reverses unionism has suffered due to its Orange connections, not much has changed, and its influence can still be decisive.  During the election campaign, in South Belfast, the Order intervened to undermine a bright, articulate and moderate candidate in favour of an Ulster nationalist dinosaur.

Now its most senior figure is hoping it can act as midwife for a united unionist party which, if it were formed with Orange interference, would have even less chance of attracting liberal and Catholic pro-Union voters.

Of course the Orange Order is not the ogre of nationalist myth.  As a fraternal organisation it can play constructive role in communities.  Its Christian ethos might seem to hinge more on pathological anti-Catholicism rather than a positive engagement with Protestantism , but no doubt it is important to members who share a faith.

As an historical remnant the Orange Order could, one day, even become quaint, but as an organisation aspiring to play an active role in unionist politics, it has absolutely nothing positive to offer.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

'Worthless' friendly as Nigel stacks his squad with local duds

Northern Ireland play Turkey tonight, in an obscure friendly in Connecticut.  As usual a dedicated band of supporters have followed the team to the US.  Unfortunately players have shown rather less dedication and the squad is almost unrecognisable.

Nigel Worthington claims that the tour, which includes another match in Chile on Sunday night, is worthwhile.  Having cast an eye over the starting eleven, I’m not so sure.

Alongside a few fringe players and youngsters are a cadre of Irish league ’stars’ who will never in a million years grace a competitive international side.  It’s not like we’re even talking potential here.  These are not overachieving sixteen year olds.

Alan Blayney is to keep goal.   The goalie is a seasoned twenty eight year old professional.  He started out at Southampton, where he made a handful of appearances, and his career has been, more or less, on a downward trajectory ever since.

Rory Patterson, twenty five years old, joined Rochdale as an eighteen year old.  He drifted into the non-leagues, before being picked up by Coleraine.  Patterson is a dangerous striker in the Irish league, but the only threat he presents at international level is to Jackie Fullerton, who can’t distinguish him from Kyle Lafferty.

Nigel Worthington has persistently selected this type of player ahead of full time pros, plying their trade in lower leagues on the mainland.  The result is that friendly matches of this type are a waste of time.

It makes a joke of international football to select the likes of Blayney, Jamie Mulgrew or Robert Garrett.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Maggie shows Reg how it should be done

I was unfortunate enough to witness, first hand, Declan O'Loan's speech following the election count in North Antrim.  In a long-winded ramble, the MLA mused on nationalism's performance in the constituency.  

Quite clearly he regarded it as a 'block vote' spanning both Sinn Féin and the SDLP, rather than a contest between two parties.  

Therefore I wasn't remotely surprised to hear O'Loan advocating a single nationalist grouping, to include the SDLP and Sinn Féin.  The North Antrim representative is as green as they come.  

It is surprising, however, that such a senior member of the SDLP's team has had the party whip withdrawn after he called for 'nationalist unity'.  If only the same approach were taken by the UUP to David McNarry.

Well done Margaret Ritchie. 

Monday, 24 May 2010

'Each man kills the thing he loves'. Unionist politicians and the Union.

In today's Belfast Telegraph I ask whether unionist parties might actually hinder, rather than help, the unionist cause.

As the DUP licks its wounds after Peter Robinson’s defeat in East Belfast, and the UUP ponders its future, both parties should make one question central to their post-election soul searching.  What exactly is the purpose of unionist politics?
I suppose I’m asking whether Northern Irish unionism, in any of it current guises, actually has a long-term strategy or if it exists only to perpetuate itself.  Do purportedly unionist political parties in Ulster really have the best interests of the United Kingdom at heart?
They frequently claim to be defenders of the Union, but the stark truth is, since the Belfast Agreement delegated any change in Northern Ireland’s constitutional status to periodic border referenda, parties defined solely by ’unionism’ serve only to highlight differences between the province and the rest of the UK.  
There is a strong argument that they could best defend the Union by disbanding and persuading members to align with the main British parties, either officially, or at first, unofficially.
Unionist politicians, I argue, spend so much time 'defending' the Union that they rather forget to participate in or strengthen it.

In The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Oscar Wilde wrote, “each man kills the thing he loves”, and if unionism continues to think of itself as a monolithic block, capable only of resisting nationalism, it will progressively destroy the essence of its political connection to Great Britain.     
Northern Ireland is part of the UK and will remain so until a majority of people here decide otherwise.  That principle in enshrined in international law.  Yet our politics are still based squarely around Irish nationalism’s premise that the British link is impermanent, rather than unionism’s contention that it will endure.
Unionist politicians have for far too long fixated on nationalist aspirations, to the detriment of strengthening a political relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom which is already in place.  They are like a nursery school class full of unruly toddlers who scream and scream for playtime but are too preoccupied with their tantrum to notice that it has arrived.     
I have restored the extracts which were rather extensively subbed in the finished piece.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Devolution challenges for Cameron's government.

This article appears in today's News Letter under the title 'Cameron needs to govern with sensitivity'.

David Cameron has frequently emphasised that he wants to be a prime minister for the whole of the United Kingdom and not just England.  The outgoing government‘s devolution experiment has complicated what once would have seemed a self-evident aspiration.  

Labour’s time in office saw haphazard distribution of power to assemblies in Northern Ireland and Wales, and to the Parliament in Scotland.  The dynamics of government in the UK have changed utterly since 1997.  Resurgent separatism and rampant regionalism require Cameron to perform a perilous balancing act.

While the Conservatives’ power base lies in England, the Tories failed to recover electoral ground in Scotland.  Their challenge to Labour’s ascendancy in Wales didn’t materialise either and in Northern Ireland, of course, the party’s link-up with the UUP won no seats.

Competing centres of power and the party political geography of the UK will require Cameron and his coalition to govern with extraordinary sensitivity over the next five years.  The Conservatives and Lib Dems must avoid creating undue resentment in the devolved regions, particularly as cuts begin to bite.

At the same time, the new government will be mindful of a mounting sense in England that it is disadvantaged by devolution in the other UK nations.  If the nascent campaign for an English Parliament were to gather momentum, it could yet prove a greater threat to the Union than other nationalisms.

Cameron has promised to handle the devolved institutions with a ‘respect agenda’.  He is keen to avoid conflict, but he also wants communication between regional administrations and central government.  Whether this works in practice, when the Conservatives and Liberals attempt to deal with hostile parties, whose interests are advanced by alleging government interference, remains to be seen.

In Scotland, the SNP executive already thrives upon a perceived power struggle between London and Edinburgh.  Wales’ Labour / Plaid Cymru coalition is defined by its hostility towards the Tories.  And in Northern Ireland a fractious relationship between Stormont and Westminster would delight Sinn Féin.

Even the dominant unionist party in our Executive, the DUP, increasingly views itself as a bulwark against any perceived threat to the block grant.

The Prime Minister spent the last week or so touring the UK.  He is clearly acutely aware of the dangers the Union faces and determined that his government should avoid exacerbating them.  A potentially tricky visit to Edinburgh resulted in a meeting with SNP First Minister, Alex Salmond, which both sides described as ’constructive’.

Meanwhile, the Lib Dem Chief Secretary to the Treasury, David Laws, neatly sidestepped a row over block grants, by offering the chance for devolved administrations to defer any cuts until next year.  A solution which demonstrates willingness to show a little leeway, as long as the three Executives are prepared to shoulder some responsibility.

It is very early days of course, and Cameron will need to serve his term with the health of the Union always in mind, if he is to maintain an entente cordiale between London and the UK’s devolved nations.      

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Cameron returns as government reiterates its ambitions for Northern Ireland in the UK political mainstream

David Cameron visited Northern Ireland today, for the first time since becoming Prime Minister.  Not quite within the week, as he promised, but pretty close.

Significantly the coalition government also set out its position on Northern Ireland in its 'Programme for Government' today.  It reiterates previous Conservative policy and hardly represents an abandonment of the principles behind UCUNF.
We will continue to promote peace, stability and economic prosperity in Northern Ireland, standing firmly behind the agreements negotiated and institutions they establish.  
We will work to bring Northern Ireland back into the mainstream of UK politics.
So the Liberal Democrats too, are now officially signed up to Northern Ireland at the heart of national politics.    Perhaps they should start advocating a similar approach for their sister party, Alliance.

After all, developments in the UUP could reward David Ford if he were to reposition his party as broadly supportive of the Union, rather than agnostic.

My reading of the Conservative - UUP link-up situation is that it will endure if the will exists locally to keep going.

Inauspicious start for Shannon

The new MP for Strangford, Jim Shannon, intends to embellish his maiden Commons' speech with a smattering of 'Ulster Scots'.

But for those of you whose teeth are put on edge by such a cringe-making prospect, there is hope.  Perhaps the DUP man will not even make it to Westminster.

After all, Shannon managed to miss his very first day in the chamber, prioritising instead his MLA duties at Stormont.  Mike Nesbitt, who is 'sic' of the new MP's use of the vernacular, highlights the baffling ramble about the price of second hand cars which detained Shannon in Belfast.

The News Letter attributes Shannon's non-attendance to a 'mix-up'.  As they say in the Ulster Scots, oh dear!  

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Tymoshenko exploits upsurge in nationalism in Ukraine

There’s bitter irony in Yulia Tymoshenko’s latest claim that the new president, Viktor Yanukovych, is dismantling democracy in Ukraine.  In the aftermath of February’s election, Tymoshenko refused to accept her defeat at Yanukovych’s hands, despite unanimous agreement from international observers that the poll was free and fair.

The former prime minister’s comments are timed to coincide with Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev’s, visit to Kiev.  Both Yanukovych and Medvedev are keen to foster a constructive relationship between their two countries, repairing the turbulent relationship which existed when the nationalist, Viktor Yushchenko, was president of Ukraine.

The new Ukrainian regime has set its sights on a rapprochement with Russia, which doesn’t compromise its relationship with the EU.  Yanukovych has made it abundantly clear that he still has ambitions to steer Ukraine towards European Union membership, while avoiding needlessly antagonising its powerful neighbour.

Contrary to claims which Tymoshenko makes in this interview, Yanukovych has defended the independence of Ukraine’s national gas company, Naftogaz.   Indeed his Russian counterpart has accepted that a merger is not on the cards.

Tymoshenko, however, is eager to portray Yanukovych as a threat to Ukrainian indpendence.  She is even prepared to suggest that his policies will cause the country to split in two.  It is a message designed to play on western fears and prejudices about Ukraine and Russia.  

The truth is that in the latter years of Tymoshenko’s spell as prime minister, she was more than willing to take a pragmatic approach to dealing with Moscow.  Her relationship with Vladimir Putin was almost warm.  That suited the politics of the day, when she was engaged in a power struggle with President Yushchenko.

Now Tymoshenko has calculated she should take a harder nationalist line.  Yanukovych’s decision to negotiate an extension to the Russian Black Sea fleet’s tenancy in Crimea has raised chauvinist heckles, despite the advantageous terms of the deal and the fact that the Russian region was transferred to Ukraine by the stroke of a Soviet bureaucrat‘s pen.

With nationalism rampant, fisticuffs were exchanged in the Rada and even more bizarre protests have accompanied Medvedev’s arrival.  Tymoshenko is exploiting the impression of turbulence for her own ends.

Ukraine is not going to split under President Yanukoych.  Indeed the forces which could pull it apart can be better managed by a President who recognises the historic and cultural links between the country and Russia.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Kyrgyz counter revolution may be a damp squib, but Russians aren't waiting to find out.

The media spotlight has shifted from Kyrgyzstan, but trouble has rumbled on.  Last week pro Bakiyev supporters took back government buildings in Osh, in the south of the country.

This was the attempt at counter insurgency which many experts on Central Asia expected.  Tribal allegiances play a defining role in Kyrgyz politics, and Bakiyev’s power base lies to the south.

While the Tulip Revolution was, at the time, trumpeted as a victory for reformers, informed commentators have argued that it should be understood in the context of more traditional rivalries.

The interim government retook control of southern Kyrgyzstan with relative ease.  The Central Asia blog, Registan, interprets this as a sign that Bakiyev’s supporters will not muster a serious challenge.  The counter insurgency, it claims, was due to begin in earnest yesterday.  The suggestion is that it was snuffed out before it could properly begin.

The blog believes that Bakiyev’s strategy was to split the country in two, but the link between north and south Kyrgyzstan has proved more durable than the former president expected.

Meanwhile the country’s instability has caused ethnic Russians to reconsider their future there, the Moscow Times reports.

Like many former Soviet Republics, Kyrgyzstan population included a high proportion of Russians, concentrated particularly in urban areas.  The percentage has steadily dropped during its independence, but pockets remain.  Particularly in the capital, Bishkek.

The stream of ethnic Russians returning to their ancestral homeland is replicated across Central Asia and it is always intensified by oppressive government, discrimination or a volatile political situation.

Budget cuts - opportunities and responsibilities

Already there is a theme emerging in David Cameron’s treatment of the devolved regions.  The government is keen to allow the institutions in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales plenty of leeway, on the understanding that they take responsibility for their own decisions.

The emergency budget has been announced and, naturally, each nation and region is expected to do its bit.  However, the new Lib Dem Chief Secretary to the Treasury, David Laws, has emphasised that the two devolved Assemblies and Scotland’s Parliament can defer any cuts.

It is an ingenious and eminently fair solution which neatly sidesteps the argument that budgets for this year have already been set.  Although, as New Right points out, it also allows parties to avoid getting their hands dirty before 2011’s elections.

David Cameron, as he had promised, quickly added trips to each of the UK’s capitals to the hectic schedule of establishing a new government.  He understands that devolution has changed the dynamics of our Kingdom, and the issues it raises must be handled with care.

When Cameron met Alex Salmond on Saturday, O’Neill has observed, his constructive approach both disappointed and disarmed the separatist.  He visited Cardiff yesterday and plans to touch down in Northern Ireland on Thursday, ash cloud permitting.

The Prime Minister will meet Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, no doubt explaining his government’s plans to address the deficit.  It will be up to the Executive do decide its own approach and take responsibility.

In today’s News Letter (no link), PWC’s Chief Economist, Esmond Birnie, refutes the suggestion that Northern Ireland’s politicians will have no leavers at their disposal.
“A raft on initiatives is open …. To mitigate cuts and to use the upheaval to our advantage.  New forms of finance raising, asset leverage, partnerships between the public and private and / or voluntary sectors all have the capability to reduce the impact of spending cuts”. 
Secretary of State, Owen Paterson, also intends to move ahead on his plans to put a decision on Corporation Tax into the hands of the Northern Ireland Executive.

Of course the attitude could be to blame everyone else and perpetuate the dependency culture.  It will be very much up to the Executive.  The signs weren't good when Sinn Féin / DUP refused to revisit the Programme for Government.

But Cameron and his government have indicated that they can be flexible enough to help Northern Ireland help itself, if the will is there.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Something entirely different from a 'quote of the day' ... ho hum.

Taking up the theme I developed in yesterday's post, David Gordon writes about Ulster Unionist prospects for moving forward in today's Belfast Telegraph.

The Ulster Unionists have to take a definitive line and stick with it.  Offering a drop of unionist unity from time to time, alongside a splash of Tory link-up and occasional helpings of middle ground liberalism, won't work.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

'Cunning plans' no substitute for arguing your corner.

I am more than a little confused by the signals which emerged from yesterday’s UUP Executive meeting.

Sir Reg Empey is to stay, for the time being, and stand down during the autumn.  In the mean time the party promises a ‘forensic examination’ of what went wrong in its latest campaign and early decisions on a slate of candidates for next year’s Assembly elections.

So Ulster Unionists intend, first to ink in candidates to stand for Stormont and then decide on a change of direction.  In that order.

Now, clearly the UUP has taken the Westminster selection debacle to heart, but might the party’s future direction and new leader not determine who it wants to put up for election?  After all, there are at least three fairly different routes the Ulster Unionists might take.

Reportedly Sir Reg could have claimed the backing of a substantial number of delegates yesterday had he chosen to remain at the helm.  He draws continued support particularly from those who are concerned that a new leadership will jettison the UUP’s link with the Tories.

Basil McCrea, heavily touted as a possible new leader, has cast his lot in with the Ulster Unionists who think it’s all the Conservatives fault.  And in this revealing interview with Alan in Belfast, he shows his pan-UK credentials by declaring Westminster elections irrelevant, beyond their impact on subsequent Assembly polls.

With other leadership candidates likely to emphasise fabled ‘unionist unity’, I wonder whether there is a candidate to take up the cause of UCUNF?

The one clear strategy which seems to have emerged from yesterday’s meeting is a concerted campaign to put pressure on Peter Robinson.  Whether there is a genuine will to ‘start over’, in terms of relationships with the DUP, or whether this is an attempt to get excuses in early, I don’t know.

Whichever is the case, nothing is a convincing substitute for setting out your stall honestly and articulating its merits.  The UUP tried to fudge ‘unity’ before the election, if it tries to fudge now, it will convince nobody again.

The high priest of civic unionism, Arthur Aughey, provides a tour de force over at Open Unionism, arguing lucidly that ’unionist unity’ is a dead end.  I wonder whether the UUP has the guts to be as unambiguous?

Friday, 14 May 2010

Nothing new on Stalin from outward looking Medvedev

Victory Day in Moscow saw British soldiers from the Welsh Guards take part in a parade on Red Square, alongside Russian, American and French troops.  The lead up to the event witnessed a spat about Stalin’s role in the Great Patriotic War, as attempts to have the dictator’s portrait play a role in the celebrations were quashed.

When President Medvedev made an intervention in the debate it was to shoot down any hint of Stalin-idolatry.  Speaking to Izvestia newspaper, he slammed the totalitarian Soviet regime, stressing that it was people, rather than the tyrant, who had defeated Nazi Germany and calling Stalin’s crimes ’unforgivable’.

Whatever you might read elsewhere, Medvedev has not changed tack with his comments.  He has consistently condemned the rehabilitation of Stalinism.  He has repeatedly expressed sorrow for Stalin’s victims.  And it was Medvedev who ordered that the archives be opened up, in order to reveal the true horror of the crimes at Katyn.

Russia’s relationship with the darkest episodes of its Soviet past is complicated.  Stalinist nostalgia is not unheard of and there are perfectly reasonable psychological reasons why it persists.  But the President is unambiguously opposed to the phenomenon and there is nothing particularly new in his latest remarks.

Despite much received wisdom about Russia, its leaders are not incorrigible, nor is Medvedev a clone of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

The President wants to be a modernising leader.  Just this week a document detailing the Kremlin foreign ministry’s plans to diversify and dynamise the Russian economy, by attracting inward investment from abroad, was ’leaked’.  Medvedev views hi-tech industries, and an outward looking approach to the rest of the world, as key to Russia’s future success.

He continues to struggle against the ’legal nihilism’ of the justice system, which he believes is holding Russia back.  Sometimes he is successful, sometimes less so, but it is a work in progress and at least Medvedev has accurately identified his country’s problems.

The President sincerely wants to manoeuvre Russia out of the defensive position which has often, understandably, coloured its foreign policy.  He deserves some good will, trust and partnership to enable him to succeed

Young Stalin (Vintage)

The Cameron coalition can't repeat Tories' foreign affairs mistakes

Over at Forth Magazine (subs required and recommended) I argue that the government must remain true to the new approach to foreign affairs the Conservatives charged William Hague to develop. I point out that there will be tensions, including the more belligerent instincts of the defence secretary, Liam Fox.

And I say that the Tories have failed, at least once, when they faced foreign policy challenges under David Cameron.

One of the principal foreign policy tests since David Cameron became party leader was the war in Georgia. The Conservatives were as unequivocal in their backing for President Saakashvili as the old Labour government.

The wisdom of this stance, and Cameron’s strident demand for Georgian Nato membership, has subsequently been called into question by an EU investigation, which found that Georgia started the war, as well as Saakashvili‘s increasingly erratic and authoritarian behaviour.

Rather than re-evaluate this position, however, one year after the conflict Fox put out another statement, with official Conservative sanction, reiterating the party’s support for Saakashvili. The Tories would still back any move to fast-track Nato membership for Tbilisi, it suggested.

Just months prior to Fox’s article, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a more circumspect Conservative observer of the Caucasus, contributed to the Foreign Policy Centre’s ‘Spotlight on Georgia’ document, which condemned ‘reflexive’ western support for Saakashvili.

It concluded that any prospect of Nato membership had to be tied to significant progress on human rights and democracy building. The report noted that Georgia had actually let standards slip under Saakashvili’s leadership. Given that the country had been renowned as the most corrupt former Soviet republic, under President Shevardnadze, it was a damning indictment.

Georgia offers a graphic illustration that it is no good for the Tories and their new Liberal allies simply to advocate a different approach to foreign affairs in theory. The British government must follow through and put William Hague’s ideas into practice.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

A resounding no to 'unionist unity'

The Belfast Telegraph's website doesn't seem to feature the article either, but in the print edition of yesterday's paper I argued against so-called 'unionist unity'. In the process I reviewed what went wrong for the Conservatives and Unionists (dodgy polls, Paxman interviews and the UUP's Assembly party aside).

I will link to the full article if and when it becomes available, but, meanwhile, this extract sums up the argument:

There is certainly a need for the UUP to conduct a post mortem after the Conservatives and Unionists electoral wipe-out, but there is real danger that the party will focus on all the wrong lessons.

The Tory link-up had its first electoral outing in Europe, but it was built for Westminster. Its failure to claim any seats at the general election is a devastating blow, but it cannot be ascribed to a thirst for ‘unionist unity’. In fact the unity talks which leading Ulster Unionists conducted at Hatfield House marked the beginning of the DUP’s comeback.

Just at the point at which Peter Robinson and his party were at their most vulnerable, Hatfield created a neat diversion. If the DUP were a ’beaten docket’, as Sir Reg Empey insisted, why was the UUP conducting talks about intra-unionist cooperation?

Along with the policing and justice saga, a pig in a poke which the DUP nevertheless spun as a paradigm of effective politics, Hatfield House relieved the pressure on a party which, at that point, looked dead in the water.

The DUP wriggled off the hook through a mixture of tenacity and political cunning, but they were aided and abetted by the UUP.

UCUNF’s candidate selection procedure helped foster the perception that, however damaged the DUP, Conservatives and Unionists didn’t offer a credible alternative. It became a long, drawn out, occasionally fractious saga, which suggested that the New Force was coming apart at the seams and managed to alienate prospective Catholic candidates.

The group’s opponents were quick to take advantage, with the mantra ‘unionist unity‘.

Rather than dismiss the idea of unity candidates out of hand, the UUP sent out mixed signals. The culmination of this process was UCUNF’s decision to withdraw its candidate in Fermanagh South Tyrone.

Not only were the group’s cross community credentials undermined, not only did it break its own self-imposed ordinance to field candidates across all eighteen constituencies, but it also exponentially increased the pressure to withdraw from South Belfast, to the detriment of UCUNF‘s able young candidate, Paula Bradshaw.

There are valid lessons that a new UUP leader should draw from this election. The party should be consistent and purposeful. It should give its candidates a fair opportunity to build up their profiles in important constituencies. It should not let opponents dictate the pace or content of its campaign.

Whether these lessons will be learned too late to effect the UUP’s link with the Conservatives, we must wait and see. Clearly UCUNF endured a drubbing and some leading protagonists will question its value.

Sir Reg Empey was the driving force behind the pact and, when his tenure as leader comes to an end, the party might well decide that the ‘New Force’ should come to an end too. It is highly unlikely that the Conservatives would join a three way tryst with the DUP in advance of an Assembly election, if that is the route Ulster Unionists choose.

But, although the Tory tie-up has been clumsily executed, it still has a great deal to recommend it. It positions the UUP as an outward looking party, whose unionism is based on a positive political allegiance to the UK.

In stark contrast the DUP has been unabashed about its contingent relationship with the rest of the country. As it became increasingly clear that a hung parliament was the likely result of Thursday’s election, one party source even suggested that ‘England’s difficulty’ could be ‘Ulster’s opportunity’.

Some senior UUP figures have little difficulty with this approach. David McNarry is a vocal champion of a single unionist party based around ’a shared identity’. Danny Kennedy and Tom Elliot, two MLAs touted as possible leaders, are known to be sympathetic to the notion of ’unity’.

If the UUP does bury its differences with the DUP, however, it will leave moderate pro-Union voters without a political home. That cannot be good for unionism.

Paterson need apologise to no-one for campaigning in Northern Ireland

If the new Westminster coalition can do only one thing for Northern Ireland it should drag our infantilised politicians kicking and screaming into the harsh glare of reality. We are not the centre of the universe, we cannot expect to be handled with kid-gloves forever and the British government’s role here is not to referee an unruly band of squabbling children, it is to administer national government.

The parties can ‘sqweam’ as much as they like about special circumstances, republican terrorism or the Tories lack of mandate. The new government draws its mandate from the whole of the UK and its remit covers Northern Ireland just as it covers Wales and Scotland. If you don’t like it, by all means argue for our departure from the United Kingdom.

Owen Paterson’s appointment as Northern Ireland secretary has drawn the predictable chorus of ’not fairs’. The Belfast Telegraph has dutifully compiled them to splash on its front page. Head of the queue is Margaret Ritchie, demanding Paterson ’build bridges’ for having the audacity to run an election campaign in this part of the United Kingdom and subsequently hold office here too.

In his article (not yet online), David Gordon raises doubts about the new Secretary of State’s ability to act as an ’honest broker’ and cites his party leader making jibes at the ’Swish family Robinson’. It’s wearily depressing, given the professional way Lib Dems and Conservatives have buried their differences, in the national interest, at Westminster.

The Belfast Telegraph conspicuously campaigned during the general election campaign for ‘normal politics‘. Well here are some normal politics. The regional secretaries of states, throughout the UK, represent the government in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In a democracy the government will generally be a political party which has competed for votes against other parties.

A national government certainly doesn’t require a separate mandate in each separate region, but it will have fought its corner there, with rival parties, and all the political rough and tumble that entails. Owen Paterson shouldn’t have to build bridges any more than any other representative of the government and he certainly shouldn’t have to apologise for his party seeking votes in this part of the United Kingdom.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Cameron in Number 10 as Clegg does the right thing.

So good sense has prevailed and David Cameron, finally, becomes Prime Minister. It has been a long wait to get Gordon Brown out of Downing Street. Yesterday Fraser Nelson caustically observed that special forces would be required to dislodge Brown from Number 10. That hasn't quite been necessary, Nick Clegg put the outgoing PM out of his misery.

O'Neill has outlined the reasons that the putative 'traffic light' coalition, or 'coalition of losers', would have spelled disaster for the United Kingdom. The Conservatives certainly realised this, a growing chorus of voices in the Labour party, to be fair to them, pointed out the same thing and the Liberal Democrats have apparently come to the same opinion.

Nick Clegg's party is in an extraordinary position. It has acquired political responsibility and leverage far beyond its mandate. But the Lib Dems moment in the sun could yet prove their undoing.

Had the party gone into power with Labour and a coterie of nationalists, it would have attracted enormous opprobrium and secured a landslide for the Tories whenever, inevitably, its unholy alliance fell apart. I am surprised, however, that Clegg favours shackling himself to the Conservatives.

If the Lib Dems do not accept, graciously, the role of junior partner, Cameron can portray a small party, holding the country to ransom. If they are too obviously subordinate, then any reason to vote Liberal Democrat in the future will evaporate. Their core support is already unhappy about any Tory deal.

I do believe that a Con -Lib coalition is the most responsible course of action, that it can provide a stable administration and that its government can work. Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have expressed commitment to cutting the deficit. David Cameron might have to rein in some of his plans, but there is plenty of common ground to get a government started.

I'm surprised that, on a purely tactical level, Nick Clegg has not steered his party towards support for a minority Conservative administration. However, that too would be unstable, and, if he secures agreement from the Lib Dem parliamentary party to go into government, which he surely will, then he should be congratulated for doing the right thing by Britain.

Reasons to be Cheerful

This is a guest post from Phil Larkin.  Thanks Phil!  It really is an impressive analysis.

Having now had the weekend to digest the election results from Northern Ireland, I feel better able to make a number of comments and conclusions. Chekov and others may very well disagree with these, but, in summary, I believe that there are more reasons to be cheerful in the aftermath of the election than to be despondent, if, and only if, courage is shown by moderate unionists in these coming months.

As someone from a ‘nationalist’ background, who currently lives and works in the south of England, and as someone who is a Labour voter, I approach the subject of unionism and unionist politics with a measure of caution. I have no wish to sound patronizing or lay claim to knowledge in an area where my understanding is limited. Nevertheless, as someone who is not unsympathetic to their position, and who cares about the shared future and prosperity of my own people of Northern Ireland, I would like to make this contribution so that others may express agreement or disagreement with it as they see fit. My overall view is that unionism as a political entirety now faces a tremendous period of thinking and planning, but this need not by any means spell doom and disaster for the movement.

Dispelling the Gloom
 The Saturday 8th May post by Chekov, in which he “picked through the wreckage of the general election” had, in my view, a melancholy strain running through it. I hope that this is not a precursor to a long post -mortem about what went wrong for the UCUNF, followed by a period of deep depression, because this is a luxury that articulate unionist commentators and strategists cannot afford at present. There are simply too many decisions to be made about the future of unionism, and too much hard work to be done to allow regrets for the recent past to cloud judgment. It is not for nothing that David Trimble is a greater admirer of James Craig than Edward Carson: after the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the latter sunk into manic depression, while Craig threw himself headlong into the task of salvaging the best deal for unionism.

Although I perhaps did not possess the courage of my convictions to say it on this blog, I did harbour deep doubts about the entire UCUNF project. Even from a superficial viewpoint, it seemed artificial, ill-conceived and hastily contrived, and tied the UUP’s fortunes to the Tories, when the latter have never been popular in NI and always have had difficulty getting on the same wavelength as local unionist voters. As Chekov himself has acknowledged, the UCUNF was very badly administered, especially on the issues of drawing up the list of candidates and the single candidate for FST. It smacked of attempting to foist a “top-down” agenda on NI voters, when, as Professor Henry Patterson has stated, Ulster Unionism has traditionally consisted of an alliance between working class and middle-class unionists. Given the fact that in NI the public sector accounts for around 70 pc of the economy, and the Tories plan to initiate deep public sector cuts as soon as possible, working class unionists voting for the UCUNF would have been, as Professor Patterson argues, like turkeys voting for Christmas. All said, the electoral pact between the Tories and the UUP was an attempt to achieve too much change too soon.

In defence of Chekov and his enthusiasm for the UCUNF, I fully acknowledge that the pact was conceived largely out of the most laudable and praiseworthy of motives. I can put it no better than the man himself:

The rationale of the UCUNF project was that it was supposed to make unionism look outward, towards mainstream UK politics, and Northern Irish MPs in government. Its failure gives the whip hand to inward looking unionism, focused on traditional community divisions, and based around a single identity. 

For the sake of people like Chekov and Sir Reg Empey and others I feel disappointed that things did not turn out better.

However, in reference to the second sentence in the quote above, the ascendancy of “inward-looking unionism focused on traditional community divisions” can only come to pass if articulate, intelligent, and able unionists from the secular, pluralist and civic traditions of the doctrine decide, in a fit of pique, to roll over and die. Cultural unionism can only gain the whip hand if it is not counterbalanced by this secular, outward-looking “blue chip” unionist vision, represented by people such as Chekov and his fellow blogger O’Neill, Empey, Trimble, Nesbitt, et al. The intellectual initiative MUST be regained by moderate unionism.

In the coming weeks and months real courage and fortitude will be required on the part of moderates to fight and fight again for their vision of unionism in the event of a realignment of this ideology, which appears increasingly more likely. This will entail hard bargaining, articulate argument, and striking a balance between stubbornness and compromise. Citing Churchill, there is nothing on offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat, but why should liberal and secular unionists leave the field wide open for their more reactionary counterparts, whose electoral base is in any event shrinking? Making an analogy with politics on this side of the water, the departure of the SDP from the Labour Party in 1980 lead neither anywhere except a long period in the wilderness. Does unionism want to go in the same direction? Strange though it may sound, any realigned unionism could look to the governing Fianna Fail in the south for an exemplar of how to manage a diverse political grouping with a number of different ideological facets. In a sense, the political shrinking of Peter Robinson and the rout of the TUV may make the case of unionist moderates easier in the event of a unionist realignment.

In a sense, one real result of the recent recession has been to push most people’s plans back by at least four or five years. It is the same with politics. Now is simply not the time to try to break the mould of sectarian politics in any grandiose way – instead, patience is required. For example, I was very much in favour of the idea to turn NI into an enterprise zone, lowering the rate of corporation tax for the Province, thereby supplying a welcome counterbalance to the vast public sector at home, and offering the prospect of a period of unparalleled prosperity for our people. However, it will have to be accepted that this prospect cannot be achieved immediately, and those who championed the idea in the UCUNF will have to ensure that it does not die, even if there is some form of coalition government between Labour and the Lib Dems. At present, the time is simply not right for it. Again, this will require the most articulate and intelligent Unionists facing up to their detractors from within the fold, in particular those from the DUP who adhere to the “pork barrel” philosophy when dividing up the annual block grant. Of course it is not an ideal situation, but nevertheless, it must be faced up to.

It is only by unionism and the SDLP dragging SF into the territory of realistic economics can their true paucity of their philosophy be exposed to the light. The nature of the NI executive and the local economy allows them to hide behind the safety and security of the block grant. In addition, beyond the present travails of unionism, I would argue that nationalism has issues of its own to contend with. These I will go on to develop.

What about nationalism?
 Much has been said over the past few days about the challenges facing unionism, but little about the difficult issues that nationalism, in particular Sinn Fein, will have to deal with over the next decade or so. Perhaps this is because the seemingly settled nature of the nationalist vote on Thursday past, and the fact that no nationalist or republican MP lost their seat.

 However, there is one key question on nationalist politics which has, to my knowledge, not been dealt with at all adequately: what happens to Sinn Fein when the “protest” generation of Adams and Mc Guinness et al begin to pass from the political stage? No commentator appears at the time of writing to have examined this ground, yet with each passing day it becomes more pressing. Adams himself will be 62 in the autumn. Mc Guinness is approaching 60, as Gerry Kelly will be soon. Not very old in terms of political careers, but old enough perhaps for some in the SF hierarchy to start thinking of whom will replace them. Within a few years it will be the 20th anniversary of the first IRA ceasefire. Some of the figures of that vintage such as Brendan Hughes, Brian Keenan, and Martin Meehan have passed on already.

Who, from the rising generation of SF activists, has so much first-hand knowledge of the pre-Troubles period in the north, or was so intimately involved in that period of our history known as “the Troubles” than figures such as Adams and Mc Guinness? Who nowadays has personal experience of the turbulent days of the late 1960s and the factors which precipitated the Troubles? Who else can command such support within the nationalist community, even beyond their bases of West Belfast and Derry? I personally can think of none. I hardly think that someone like Catriona Ruane, for example, fits the description of a charismatic leader in the Adams or Mc Guinness mould. Conor Murphy has limited appeal as a leader (although conceivably he may have hidden magnetism unknown to the wider electorate), as has Michelle Gildernew.

The reality for SF (and some non-SF nationalists) is that their star is hitched to a fading generation. With each passing year of social change memories of the types of discrimination suffered by the nationalist population of the north, gerrymandering, and the events and sufferings of the Troubles themselves will fade into the pages of the history books. It has frequently been said that Irish people have long memories, yet even at that it is difficult to see how a melange of tribal folk-memories, extreme cultural nationalism, and a vague aspiration for a 32 county Irish Republic (something that SF themselves have now acknowledged will not happen until the unionist population in Northern Ireland population wishes it) will continue to exercise a hold over the imaginations of future generations of northern nationalist electors. Gerry Adams himself set the goal of SF being in government both North and South of the border by 2016 (centenary of the Easter Rising), and thus able to beat a political path towards a de facto united Ireland. We are now only six years away from this deadline, and, if SF fortunes among the electorate in the Irish Republic continue as they have in the recent past, then there is little chance of either of these dual aims being achieved.

What then? Will the deadline be put back to 2021 (centenary of the Anglo-Irish Treaty)? Or 2037 (centenary of the Irish Constitution)? 2049 (centenary of the Irish Republic)? Or 2081 (centenary of the hunger strikes)? It is like searching for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and even commentators such as Jude Collins in a recent newspaper article recognise that:

“In the north, the superficially-reported bombings reflect a 
neutered media and a growing disillusionment among 
nationalists that, at best, progress towards a united Ireland
is happening at tortoise-pace.”

 I think that Jude’s description of progress towards a united Ireland at a “tortoise-pace” actually exaggerates the speed of progress by several gears. In fact, there has been no development in favour of the traditional nationalist/republican aspiration of a 32 county Irish Republic. The first reason for this is that, as mentioned above, the unionist population (and a significant number of nationalists) in the north do not want it. The second is that the priority importance of a “united Ireland” to the Government and political establishment of the Irish Republic is, metaphorically speaking, about 999th on a list of 1000. They have their own more pressing agenda of problems to deal with, namely restoring the fortunes of the economy after the recession, reducing the crippling rates of government borrowing, and preventing another Irish brain drain to the rest of the English speaking world and Europe.

One reason for SF’s lack of support among the electorate in the Irish Republic has been very well articulated in an article in the Sunday Business Post (February 28, 2010) relating to the up-coming SF Ard Fheis where the focus will be on the Irish Government’s expected fiscal and spending austerity measures:

“The delegates will agree that the government is attacking the
poor and public servants – Kerry TD Martin Ferris was one of the
few Oireachtas members to come to the defence of air traffic 
controllers recently. They will also claim that the banks and 
  developers are being protected. But as a party, Sinn Fein isn’t
at all sure what to do about it. ” (author’s emboldening)

This last sentence sums it all up very succinctly. SF simply do not know what to do, think, or say in relation to the crucial area of economic management. To be sure, they can continue to jump on protest bandwagons for publicity reasons, but when it comes down to hard economic decisions and policy, the political tools and analytical skills which have served the party so well in the north and during the “peace process” fail them absolutely. Caught between two stools, that of being a squeaky clean left-wing party who stand in splendid isolation from the squalor of the Irish political establishment, and their hunger for power and a role in executive government, SF know not which way to jump. This much has been admitted by Toireasa Ferris in a statement last year:

“It hurts to say it, but the fact is, Sinn Fein simply means
nothing to the bulk of the people in the south.”

Even in the north, Catriona Ruane’s career as Minister of Education has demonstrated that SF does not yet know whether to be a party of government, making compromises and hard but realistic choices, or a party of protest calling for political utopia. In the flesh and blood form of Ruane, SF is attempting to ride those two horses with one backside. They wish to be in power, but not in government. The party is beginning to learn the lessons that all glory is fleeting, and that all political ideas and personality cults have a shelf-life.

The great lawyer and Serjeant Sullivan once quipped that “The departure of the bravest leaves the comedian to play the hero.” I would urge that the remnants of the UCUNF, at this crucial time, do not simply walk away from the task that faces them. Yes, it will be difficult, and there are no easy answers for what must be done now, but bear in mind that there is much to fight for, and it should not be forgotten that however deep the problems of unionism appears, similar problems always lurk on the other side. In sum, as far as moderates are concerned, there are more reasons to be cheerful than despondent.

Monday, 10 May 2010

The 'unity' debate unfolds at Open Unionism

Over at Open Unionism a debate on a single unionist party is taking place.  Burke's Corner makes the case that unionism should realign.  Bobballs sets out the case against, aided and abetted by St Etienne (nice kit).  I am very sceptical about the argument for a united unionist party.  I don't think that healthy unionism can be a monolith, I don't believe that moderate unionists can support a party featuring some of the current crop of DUP representatives and I don't believe that a single party can offer Northern Ireland voters equal citizenship.  I will make a further sortie on this subject later in the week.  Do pop over to Open Unionism though and read both sides of the debate.  They are particularly articulate expositions.  

Saturday, 8 May 2010

A triple decapitation

In today's Irish News (subs required) I pick through the wreckage of the general election. All three parties describing themselves as unionist are in varying degrees of crisis, following the poll. I argue that Peter Robinson's position is not sustainable, after he suffered a "personal rejection" in East Belfast. And I ask whether Jim Allister can hold his party organisation together, solely in order to give him a pop at an Assembly seat in North Antrim.

Then to UCUNF's chances of survival. Sadly, I'm sceptical.

The Conservatives and Unionists intermittently emphasised their cross community pitch to voters, but Sir Reg Empey’s failure to unseat a divisive figure like Willie McCrea, in South Antrim, indicates that the approach failed spectacularly.

UCUNF’s tardiness in assembling a slate of candidates, a lack of Catholic hopefuls in the final list and the mixed signals it sent, by contracting a sectarian pact with the DUP in Fermanagh South Tyrone, all contributed to the New Force’s downfall. It is unlikely that the Conservative link-up will survive to fight another election and Sir Reg’s leadership will almost certainly fall with it.

Hard-line UUP Assemblyman, David McNarry, wasted no time calling for Empey’s head, delivering his verdict as part of a BBC panel which watched as the result from South Antrim was declared. He is known to favour a close relationship with the DUP.

And a call to realign in the interests of ‘unionist unity’ will be hard to resist for any new UUP leader, in advance of Assembly elections, particularly with grassroots unionists vehemently opposed to Martin McGuinness becoming First Minister.

The rationale of the UCUNF project was that it was supposed to make unionism look outward, towards mainstream UK politics, and Northern Irish MPs in government. Its failure gives the whip hand to inward looking unionism, focussed on traditional community divisions, and based around a single identity.

Unionism? Us? "England's difficulty" and the DUP.

Well, eight of them were returned to Parliament, but is there a scrap of genuine unionism in any of them?

BBC correspondent Mark Simpson describes a senior DUP member telling him that "England's difficulty could be Ulster's opportunity" in the aftermath of the election results. There's not really any need to go further is there?

That's what 'unionism' appears to have become in Northern Ireland.

The DUP likes to evoke World War 1 in its literature. In fact Jimmy Spratt produced a tasteless leaflet in advance of the election likening a vote for him to "going over the top". Let's remember the words of Edward Carson, when war broke out in Europe.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

High stakes in South Antrim.

The following piece was commissioned by a newspaper, but, as yet, it hasn't been published. Clearly, it will be out of date tomorrow, so I can safely post it here.

The tone is rather downbeat. At the time it was written the cry of 'unionist unity' was at fever pitch. But the thrust of my piece is similar to the blog I wrote yesterday. This is a defining election for unionism. The stakes couldn't be higher.

And with that I will post the article and go to vote - for Paula Bradshaw - the only candidate standing on a unionist prospectus in South Belfast.

They say that success has many fathers while failure is an orphan. It is likely that UCUNF will be abandoned, unwanted, by its political parents, if it does not flourish in the general election. The child of a whirlwind romance between the UUP and the Conservative party, its birth created a sense of optimism among unionists, but it has hardly been a case of ‘happy families’ since.

Sir Reg Empey, the matchmaker who nudged this courting couple down the aisle, has staked his political reputation on the marriage and its awkward offspring. His decision to stand in South Antrim is brave, some would say foolhardy, but there is logic to the gamble.

Empey’s leadership is already linked, inextricably, to the fortunes of UCUNF. If he fails to win South Antrim the Conservatives and Unionists are unlikely to do well in the forthcoming election. If the Conservatives and Unionists do not do well the New Force is unlikely to survive. If the New Force does not survive Sir Reg will no longer be the UUP’s leader.

The stakes are high, but Empey’s candidacy is simply an acceptance of political reality. His party embarked upon this project because it was floundering and badly needed a ‘big idea‘. Not only does its leader’s survival now depend on a creditable election performance, so too does the UUP’s future as a viable, moderate unionist alternative to the DUP.

This election represents a struggle for the heart and soul of Ulster Unionism. Its result will determine which one of two routes the party will take. Will it face outwards, engage with the rest of the United Kingdom, and commit to a modern and inclusive future? Or will it turn inwards, accept the notion that Northern Ireland is doomed to be a place apart and consign itself forever to the margins of British politics?

Each direction has its advocates within the party and their disagreement has been gleefully exploited by the DUP with its incessant mantra of ’unionist unity’. The moderate, non-sectarian credentials upon which the UCUNF edifice is supposed to be based, have been undermined by the UUP’s decision to back Rodney Connor as a ’unity candidate’ in Fermanagh South Tyrone.
It graphically illustrates different priorities within the UUP, that while the bulk of the party gears up for Westminster elections, and the possibility of playing a full role in national politics, a small faction seems focussed on negotiations with the DUP, ‘unionist unity‘ and the next Assembly elections.

Ultimately, though, the fate of the Conservative and Unionist pact will be determined at the ballot box. And Empey’s battle in South Antrim is the most critical seat of all.

If UCUNF does well, and Empey is elected, Northern Ireland could easily have a minister in the next government. With a small and influential group of MPs, based full-time at Westminster and involved intimately in the day to day business of national politics, the balance of power within the Ulster Unionist party should move decisively away from New Force sceptics.

If he wins the South Antrim seat, it will substantially strengthen Empey’s position as leader and offer UCUNF some momentum.

On the other hand, if Conservatives and Unionists do badly, and Sir Reg loses, the pact is likely to go into meltdown. The UUP will almost certainly seek a change of leader and it is probable that a New Force doubter, from the party’s traditional wing, could emerge as the favourite.

With the emphasis on UK politics diluted, pressure to merge with the DUP or strike some type of electoral arrangement would be intense. Indeed there might be little to choose between the two parties and unionists with a broader, national outlook would struggle to find a convivial home for their views within the UUP.

There is, therefore, a very real possibility that unionism could realign, in the aftermath of this election. The local Conservative party, if it is forced to cut its links with Ulster Unionists, would be best placed to mop up the larger portion of disillusioned UUP activists. Left leaning members, who could not be reconciled to a modernised Tory party, might attempt to coalesce around Sylvia Hermon.

Which would leave a rump of older or more traditional Ulster Unionists free to bury their differences with the DUP and concentrate on the ‘parochial stupidities’, which Arthur Aughey, a leading scholar of unionist politics, insists have hampered unionism’s efforts to become a modern, effective force.

It would be an unfortunate end to a political project which started out with high hopes and has, on occasion, been a vehicle for lofty ideals. If it is to be avoided, the Conservatives and Unionists need to return two to four MPs, to ensure the pact’s survival. One seat would give UCUNF a middling chance of lasting through the next parliament, particularly if it were won in South Antrim.

The truth is that Empey has little choice other than to lead from the front. His position, and the future of his party, is hanging in the balance.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

The Choice

Tomorrow, when the polls open in Northern Ireland, voters will be presented with some very distinct choices. Will a substantial proportion again place their X beside candidates whose movement has, until relatively recently, engaged in a brutal campaign to murder their neighbours?

It seems almost certain. We should never forget that that is the clearest articulation of tribalism and hatred we see at the polls, in any part of the UK, never mind Northern Ireland. It is, by some distance, the most damning electoral indictment of the society in which we live.

Nevertheless there is also a battle for the heart of unionism in progress and it has its own weighty connotations.

In this election in particular, it is not just a party political battle, it cuts to the philosophical core of pro-Union politics in Ulster. The choice for unionist electors has rarely been crystallised so clearly.

They can opt to bolster unionism which is outward looking, orientated towards the rest of Britain and based on a positive political allegiance to the United Kingdom. Or they can choose ’unionism’ which looks inward, feeds on fear and suspicion and whose Britishness is little more than a mark of difference from Irish Catholic neighbours.

Nobody would claim that UCUNF is perfect, that it is the finished article or that it comprises a completely pure vessel for UK unionism. But it is, by far and away, the best that we have got at the moment and the best that there has been for a long long time.

The Conservatives and Unionists offer the most lucid vision for Northern Ireland’s inclusion in mainstream British politics since partition and they are bidding to position Ulster unionism within a pan-UK movement, aimed at strengthening the political integrity of our Kingdom.

Whatever happens in tomorrow’s poll, positive, UK orientated unionism in Northern Ireland will not die, but there is a chance that its popular electoral expression could be strangled at birth.

That would be a deplorable outcome for anyone who places a value upon our place within the United Kingdom. However you might assess the benefits of a Conservative government, or the economic arguments which are unfolding between the three national parties in this election, if Ulster unionism retreats back into its ‘parochial stupidities‘, it will be to the Union’s detriment.

If the Conservatives and Unionists succeed, all national parties will unavoidably have a stake in Northern Ireland. It becomes increasingly difficult for Labour and the Lib Dems not to follow the Tories’ lead and become directly involved. Conversely, if they do not succeed, the idea that Ulster is intractably a ’place apart’ is strengthened.

In the worst case scenario the Conservative and UUP pact could disintegrate, if sufficient Ulster Unionists rally round party figures who would take them back into the tribal ghetto. That route leads to Orange, protestant, identity unionism, which cannot hope to broaden its appeal, and maintains only a flimsy link to the broader UK polity.

Which would be a tragedy, not only for the parties concerned, but also for the idea of the Union itself. It means Northern Ireland, increasingly isolated and sidelined within the United Kingdom, increasingly remote from the mainstream.

It means a dwindling, moribund, stigmatised ‘unionism‘, unable to offer any philosophical justification for its existence beyond stale Ulster nationalism. 'Unionism' trapped for ever within its self-imposed communal boundaries.

The alternative is so much brighter. It offers a strategy to drive forward Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom through inclusion and participation. It promises to advance the goal of equal citizenship, which extends basic democratic entitlements to people who have been deprived of the chance to elect or remove their government.

The job won’t be finished if Conservatives and Unionists take seats at tomorrow’s election. Far from it. But it will move the Union forward in a way that the DUP never can.

It gives impetus to a project with the potential to copper-fasten our place within the United Kingdom, to make it meaningful and to change our political culture for ever.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Planes, helicopters and swimming trunks - Cameron defies the ash cloud to campaign in Ulster.

He claimed that at one point swimming trunks were called for, and Sir Reg Empey joked that it proves he can walk on water, but by hook or by crook David Cameron made it to Northern Ireland.

The Icelandic volcano did all in its power to prevent the Conservative leader campaigning in Northern Ireland. Then Cameron’s helicopter broke down. Finally he managed to get here by jet-plane, flying under the ash cloud, in order to address a gathering at La Mon hotel.

Cameron showed some tenacity when his travel plans went awry and, to be fair, the people who attended showed some determination too. His speech was delayed for some two hours.

When it eventually arrived it was typically upbeat and centred on the national themes which UCUNF want to bring to local politics. There were special mentions for PMS investors, whom Cameron pledged to help, and a backhanded reference to Peter Robinson.

Successful Conservative and Unionists candidates, he stressed, would never make a ’swish’ family of MPs.

It was a slick event, and no doubt it will cheer UCUNF’s activists, as they return to their respective constituencies. It also makes a welcome change that, in the heat of an election campaign, thirty six hours before polls open, a national party leader has chosen to appear 'on the stump' in Northern Ireland.

Cameron was asked when he would next return to Ulster. “If I’m elected Prime Minister Sir, I’ll be back in Belfast next week”, was the reply.

Hand of History has a nice personal take on the day. Ivor decided to make it into a bit of a family occasion!

The Conservatives and Unionists have issued a contract with people in Northern Ireland to accompany Cameron’s visit.

David Cameron's visit to NI

At the La Mon hotel waiting for David Cameron to arrive - rather late! Here are some extracts from his speech to keep you amused.

Our two great parties have created a dynamic new electoral force for Northern Ireland.
And it’s because we made that step that today we are not just saying that we are the party of the union...
...we are showing that we are the party of the union...
...the party of Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England – with candidates standing in every part of the United Kingdom.
Nobody else can say that. Not Labour. Not the Liberal Democrats.
And none of the local parties here in Northern Ireland.
So why is this so important?
It’s important because of our deep commitment to the union.
So let me repeat the pledge I made to you in Belfast a year and a half ago.
I will never be neutral on the Union.
We passionately believe that England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are stronger together, weaker apart – and the union of our two parties strengthens those bonds.
But our new electoral force is also important for another reason.
For as long as anyone can remember, politics here has been dominated by constitutional issues – the latest developments in the peace process.
This election presents a new opportunity to participate in the mainstream of British politics.
Mainstream politics in which issues like taxes, pensions, defence and foreign policy…
…that are decided in Westminster yet affect every single person in Northern Ireland…
…are part of the mainstream political debate.
Mainstream politics in which people in Northern Ireland can participate at all levels of government in the UK – from the council chamber right the way to the Cabinet table itself.
At this election, only Conservatives and Unionists are offering people in Northern Ireland that opportunity - the chance to elect MPs who can be part of the government of the United Kingdom.
We’ve got record government debt. Record government borrowing. Unemployment is up.
In this contract are the radical plans to dig us out of that mess.
Plans to make government accountable, stop the waste, stop Labour’s jobs tax – and get better services for the taxes you pay.
Plans to make the UK the best place in the world to do business.
Stopping the rise of red tape, lower corporation tax rates, abolishing employment taxes on the first ten jobs created by new businesses.
We’ll bring a new age of enterprise and ambition across the United Kingdom.
In this part of the UK we’ll go even further, looking at ways of turning Northern Ireland into an enterprise zone.
And we’ll produce a government paper examining how we can change the corporation tax rate here, so that we can get even more investment coming in.
We want to grow the size of the private sector in Northern Ireland to create new jobs and investment.
But let me also say this.
The country faces some difficult decisions ahead on how we will tackle the deficit.
I want people to know that if elected I will make these decisions with compassion, reasonableness and a concern for the most disadvantaged.
That is who I am and that is what a government I lead will be like.
So we will continue to fund Northern Ireland according to its needs, and we will tackle the deficit while protecting the essential frontline public services that we all rely on.
There is no way Northern Ireland will be singled out over and above any other part of the UK.
I know that for many years people in Northern Ireland felt cut off from the rest of the United Kingdom, including from the government.
I want to end that sense of isolation.
I want to give voters in Northern Ireland the right – for the first time in generations – to vote for a party capable of forming the government of our United Kingdom...
…to enable people in Northern Ireland to play their full part in the affairs of the country as a whole...
…and to realise at long last the basic democratic right to equal citizenship within the United Kingdom.
That can only happen through the partnership of our two parties.
Other parties can talk about this.
Only Conservatives and Unionists can deliver.
Of all the parties standing in Northern Ireland at this election – only we can form the government of our country.
Of all the parties standing in Northern Ireland at this election – only we can get a decisive mandate and strong majority in the House of Commons.
Of all the parties promising change – only we can deliver it.