Wednesday, 30 September 2015

The SNP: Fiction & Reality (Part 2) Dr Phil Larkin

In the second part of guest poster Phil Larkin's piece on the SNP, he looks at the party's record in government and the current case for independence.

The SNP: Government and Opposition
It is easy to forget that the SNP has been in government in Scotland since 2007, since they have perfected the art of being in power while simultaneously acting as if they are also the opposition (sometimes to their own decisions). It is also instructive to look at some of the decisions they have made, and measure these against the Party’s self-professed radical left image. The central basis on which the SNP is founded, namely, the theory that “home rule” is better rule, should be relatively easy to test, since it only requires an examination of their record in government. At present, the Teflon quality of the Party seems to make it immune from the reality that their record in government in Scotland has been far from exemplary in many respects.

To begin, the abolition of tuition fees by the SNP in Scotland has served mainly to assist higher income families, rather than ensuring that children from disadvantaged backgrounds can enter higher education. This is demonstrated by the fact that this September more than one in five English students from poor backgrounds will go university, twice the number of poor Scots. A former leading civil servant, Lucy Hunter Blackburn, who assisted in a university study of higher education policy in Scotland concluded that the abolition of fees not only tends to help rich families, but it also reinforces inherited inequalities in wealth. This would not matter quite so much had the SNP Government in Scotland been devoting exponentially more attention and resources to technical education, further education, and apprenticeships, but this is not the case. In fact, since 2007, there are now 30,000 fewer places in further education in Scotland. This stands in stark contrast to the approach of the Westminster Government (and that of the previous Coalition) with its emphasis on creating apprenticeships in technical areas, and its sponsorship of university technical colleges to train new generations of young people skilled in engineering and design. While it is true that there is much work to be done in terms of technical education in England, at least a start has been made. This cannot be said about Scotland, which is an absolute disgrace when one considers that the country was once famous for its great engineers, technicians and inventors. Many Scottish schools, once renowned for their rigour and quality of education are underperforming, and the SNP does not appear to have any strategy to deal with this. Essentially, the Nationalists’ education policy not only favours better off families, but it also means that many educated Scots will opt not to remain in Scotland, but rather move south where there are more opportunities for the bright and ambitious.

The SNP’s policing experiment, which consisted of merging eight discrete constabularies to form one unwieldy force, has become a veritable case study in mismanagement. Not only did the anticipated savings from this venture fail to materialise, but also the huge force has struggled with basic communication and has come under fire for slipshod responses to emergencies. This is epitomised by a notorious incident in July when a man was found dead inside his car near Bannockburn three days after the crash was first reported. His girlfriend, who was found alive, but unconscious, next to him, later died. Had the report been acted on earlier, it is possible that her life could have been spared. Can anyone imagine a UK Home Secretary surviving in office had one of their showpiece reforms produced such a result? The performance of NHS hospitals north of the border have also been below par.

The SNP’s penchant for grand populist measures in the field of land reform has run into difficulties when it comes to detail. The measure referred to here is the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill, which has as its basic aim to allow SNP ministers to force the sale of land to local communities if the owner is deemed to be a barrier to “sustainable development”, and failure to push true such a transaction would be “likely to result in significant harm to that community.” The target of this proposed reform are clearly the great Scottish estates, some owned by aristocrats, and others owned by large land companies and used for purposes such as grouse shooting and deer stalking. While not going into the merits of this aim, Dr Jill Robbie, lecturer in private law at Glasgow University, has stated that the Bill is so vague that it undermines a centuries-old principle of property ownership, and that it is absolutely unclear as to when estates, and whose estates, are to be compulsorily sold to local communities. This attempt at populism has backfired badly.

The Current Case for Scottish Independence
It is a commonplace that the “Yes” campaign failed mainly because they could not construct a credible economic case for independence, and this Achilles heel was, predictably, capitalised upon by the unionist parties. Recent opinion polls have suggested have suggested that support for independence has climbed to over 50 per cent of the electorate. These polls should be taken with a very large pinch of salt. The reason for this assertion is that the legal, economic, and financial picture which prevailed at the time of the time of the referendum has not changed one iota, and looks set to continue well into the future. Prior to the 2014 Referendum, Alex Salmond claimed that he had received legal advice from the government’s law officers that an independent Scotland would automatically inherit the UK’s EU membership and opt-outs, including the opt-out from the single currency. He and his ministers then spent £20,000 of taxpayers’ money resisting a Freedom of Information request to disclose the exact nature of that advice. After losing this prolonged game of cat and mouse, Salmond had to admit that no such legal advice had ever been given. Neither is it likely that the EU will be any more amenable to allowing Scotland automatic inheritance at the time of any future independence referendum. For a start, such a proposal would receive fierce opposition from Spain, which has fought its own battles with Basque and Catalan nationalists over independence for those regions. Since Catalonia and the Basque Country reach into French territory, Scotland may expect opposition from France also. Italy too, with its German speaking population in South Tyrol, would be likely to look askance at any development towards the breakup of the UK. Even if it were desirable for an independent Scotland to enter the Eurozone, it was made clear that this would not be granted automatically either: Scotland would have to go through the normal application process, and then effectively be obliged to join the euro. In any event, given the stagnant rates of growth in the Eurozone, Scottish electors have become cold about the idea of adopting the euro, so it quietly faded from view on the SNP agenda, as did the much vaunted “arc of prosperity” from Norway to Iceland which the Party hierarchy had crowed that an independent Scotland would join, before the onset of the recession.

With the euro having become distasteful to Scottish voters, it speaks volumes for Salmond’s chutzpah that he was able to claim with a straight face before the referendum that in the event of independence, Scotland would then successfully negotiate a currency union with the remainder of the UK, a development which the main unionist parties in Westminster would simply accept without demur, and which would make the Bank of England lender of last resort for Scottish banks. No-one but a politician with a neck of purest brass could make such a claim. On so many levels it is utterly unrealistic to think that such a currency union would be forthcoming, not least because in the event of successful referendum for the SNP, Westminster would simply not be inclined to be magnanimous, and would probably refuse such a suggestion out of hand. If any such currency bargain was struck, one can be sure that it would be a harsh one, favouring Westminster (which would be fighting viciously to guard the interests of the rest of the UK) and ensuring that Scotland would pay its share of the debt to the rest of the UK down to the last penny, and perhaps even more. It is unlikely that an independent Scotland would sign up to such a harsh deal, and would be obliged therefore to adopt the euro.

One hobby horse ridden mercilessly over the years by Scottish nationalists has been that Scotland has never received its fair share of North Sea oil revenue, and in effect was being fleeced by London. However, the fact that Scotland receives considerably more spending per head of population than England under the Barnett Formula became abundantly clear to the English electorate during the pre-Referendum period, exploding one long-standing myth. Remaining with the theme of oil revenue, the SNP hierarchy attempted to play down the absolute centrality of these funds to any independent Scotland, with Salmond declaring that they would be simply a “bonus” to Scottish prosperity. Developments in the international oil market have not played out in favour of the cause of Scottish independence. With the slowdown in the Chinese economy, amongst other factors, cheap oil is presently abundant in the world, selling at $48 per barrel at the time of writing, and this may dip even further if Iranian oil comes on the world markets in significant quantities in the future. For an independent Scotland just to break even, the revenues gained from oil sales would have to rise by several thousand per cent. Goldman Sachs has suggested that this present era of cheap oil could last for the next five years. It is true that oil prices, like any other commodity, can go up as well as down, but to attempt to make a case for independence based on the present situation is surely a political kamikaze mission. On the figures cited above, it has been estimated that an independent Scotland, after paying its share of UK debts, would be some £8 billion worse off annually on secession. So how is this shortfall to me made up? Working on the assumption that an independent Scotland would have to join the Eurozone, it is probable that before long the fledgling nation would have to go on a cap-in-hand mission to the troika (the European Commission, ECB, and IMF) in order to negotiate a substantial loan. In return for this, swingeing cuts in public expenditure would be demanded, making the current austerity policy pursued by Westminster pale into insignificance by comparison. The first policy that would have to be scrapped would be free University tuition. This would be an ironic situation for the SNP to find itself in, given the amount of railing it has done against UK-wide austerity. Furthermore, Scottish voters have already seen this situation play out over this summer on their TV screens in relation to Greece. How likely is it that they will want to see a similar scenario replicated in Scotland?

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

The SNP: Fiction & Reality by Phil Larkin

Periodic guest poster, Dr Phil Larkin, has contributed a penetrating overview of the SNP, which I've taken the liberty of splitting into three separate posts.  This is a detailed dissection of the nationalist vision for Scotland and why it isn't tenable.  Today, why the 'commentariat' has lost its mind over Scottish nationalism and why electors in Scotland voted for the SNP.

Queen Elizabeth and Alex Salmond
By Dr Phil Larkin


Every few years, elements of the media and political commentariat seem to lose their power of reason over a particular issue. At present, this issue is the SNP’s victorious 2015 General Election. If some sources are to be believed, the end of the UK is nigh, and the SNP are set to continue from glory to glory until this wondrous event takes place. They are deemed by some commentators to possess a masterful political vision, and have a crystal clear strategy mapped out to achieve this. They are ready, willing, and able both to end the austerity policy and to turn Scotland into a sort of northern Dubai minus the great weather, where all citizens enjoy social and economic equality: a veritable Celtic paradise.

 It is my view that if there is a speck of truth in all of this, it is about the height of it. While it is true that the SNP did score a great victory in May’s election, and probably has sufficient momentum behind it to perform well in next year’s Scottish Parliamentary election, it is the case that the Party is fast approaching the crest of a political hill, and once this is reached, it will be downhill over the course of next five to ten years. In fact, that the Party won so many seats back in May could do it, and the cause of Scottish independence, more long term damage than good. These assertions will be developed in this article. It will also be argued that Jeremy Corbyn becoming Labour Party leader does not bode well for the SNP for the short to medium term. In reality, as will be set out below, much of the SNP’s success is based, quite simply, upon the politics of illusion. Nationalism itself is an extremely emotive subject, against which logic and reason often finds it difficult to prevail. Nevertheless, in this article I will attempt to shine a light on this topic.

 Why did Scottish Electors vote SNP?

 “A farmer went out to sow his seed…Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root.” Mathew Chapt 13. The Parable of the Sower.

 The build-up to the Scottish Independence referendum on 18 September 2014 was a long one, announced in March 2013, and ample time for both pro- and anti- camps to set out their case. The pro-independence campaign was stretched out over a long period, whereas the “No” campaign was characterised by a sharp burst of activity in the run-up to the referendum. There was some merit in the approach of the “No” camp. The order given to the American troops at the Battle of Bunker Hill was “don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes”, in other words, don’t act until the opposition has burned itself out and their arguments have become exhausted. In the end, this approach prevailed, with a convincing 55 per cent of the population voting “No” to independence (although they did not reach the 60 per cent that some had hoped for). The result demonstrated clearly that there was no overwhelming desire to break up the United Kingdom among the Scottish electorate, although it was a great political achievement for the SNP to have convinced 45 per cent of voters to opt for independence.

 The drawback to the “No” camp’s low-key tactics to winning the referendum was that it provided the “Yes” campaign, spearheaded by the SNP, with enormous publicity, allowing them to become household names north of the border. This was to have a devastating effect on the Labour Party in the 2015 Election, permitting the SNP to capitalise on the anti-Westminster establishment feeling, and the weariness with austerity politics prevalent in various parts of the UK, and from which UKIP and the Green Party also benefitted. For many years, Scotland has lacked a Labour leader of the stature of Donald Dewar, and the Party’s image was damaged by instances of governmental incompetency, such as the debacle over schools’ examination marking which happened when Henry McLeish was First Minister. The SNP therefore took control of the Scottish Executive in 2007 (although to listen to them sometimes one would not know that they had ever been in government). Furthermore, between 2010 and 2015 the Labour Party in Scotland haemorrhaged members (partly a by-product of Labour’s complacency in Scotland over a period of years), which meant that when the time came for election canvassing there was a chronic shortage of willing volunteers. This author’s brother, who lives in a suburb of Glasgow, said that prior to the 2015 election the only political party representative who actually came to his door was the SNP representative. The momentum behind the SNP thus took on the force of a bandwagon, and many people who would otherwise naturally have voted Labour got caught up in the emotion and clamour of the Nationalists’ campaign. Ed Miliband’s ineffectual leadership of Labour, and the fact that he appeared unconvincing and lacklustre to the Scottish electorate compounded a disastrous campaign for the Party. Yet, I am not entirely convinced that many Scots who eventually voted SNP knew exactly what policies they were voting for, beyond a sort of vague, populist, anti-Westminster-ism. This was demonstrated in a Guardian video made in the run-up to the 2015 Election, when a journalist interviewed a group of young Scots in their late teens/early twenties about their voting intentions. One replied that she was going to vote SNP, stating that their policies were “definitely best for Scotland.” The journalist then casually asked her “which SNP policy in particular do you favour?” She could not answer, and giggled in embarrassment.

 In addition to the populist, anti-austerity element of SNP politics, there is also a strain of another form of nationalism that can be observed. Due to rapid industrialisation during the nineteenth century, Scotland absorbed an enormous number of Irish (mainly Catholic) immigrants, who tended to form separate communities in the larger cities of Scotland, with tensions often existing between the host and immigrant communities. While many of these eventually came to vote Labour (indeed, they formed the backbone of the Labour Party in cities like Glasgow) there were at least some attempts during the referendum campaign to link residual, subconscious feelings of Irish nationalism with Scottish nationalism and the “Yes” campaign. On one BBC news story, an SNP activist from the Republic of Ireland was interviewed. He talked about the struggle which his grandfather had waged for Irish Independence, and hoped to be able to regale his grandchildren with his efforts on behalf of Scottish independence. The historian Tom Devine also comes from this school of thought. Yet to conflate Scottish nationalism with Irish nationalism in this way is mistaken: Scottish nationalism is a very different animal than its Irish counterpart. There is no history of large scale agrarian disorder and violence, or secret societies in Scotland’s history, and neither is Scottish nationalism fuelled by any form of Gaelic or cultural revival. Struggles in Scotland historically have tended to be linked into those prevalent in Britain as a whole, such as Chartism and the trade union movement. A number of times in the past people from an Irish nationalist background (from both north and south) have said to me that they could not understand why Scots did not “fight for their freedom” as the Irish did. Such sentiments do not go much beyond the emotional “Braveheart” school of nationalism, crumble under any sort of close forensic analysis, and those who espouse such views grossly misunderstand the relationship between Scotland and England, and Scotland’s historical place within the United Kingdom.

 The Conservatives have long struggled to find their electoral feet in Scotland, tainted by historical memories of the de-industrialisation policy pursued by the Thatcher Governments during the 1980s, and the decision to use Scotland as a testing ground for the Community Charge (Poll Tax). Scottish Conservatives really do have an uphill struggle on their hands, but, strangely, I do not believe that their task is impossible. More will be said about this below.

The next part of this series will follow tomorrow.  

Monday, 28 September 2015

Cross party think tank proposes 'new Act of Union'

Two recent articles on Three Thousand Versts have expressed concern that the UK’s constitutional issues have been allowed to drift, since the ‘No’ campaign won the Scottish independence referendum.  With that in mind, it was interesting to read a piece in yesterday’s Sunday Times, proposing a new Act of Union. (Free version here):

The article launches a cross-party group called the Constitution Reform Group and carries the signatures of Sir Menzies Campbell, Peter Hain and Robert (Lord) Salisbury, who belong to the Liberal Democrat, Labour and Conservative parties, respectively.  The group, it claims, consists of “retired cabinet ministers, practising politicians, former parliamentary officials and civil servants, lawyers, journalists and academics”.

The authors express concern about the government’s provisions to create ‘English votes for English Laws’ on the basis that they will create two classes of MP in the House of Commons.  Using parliament’s standing orders as a vehicle to effect constitutional change adds to the impenetrability of the UK’s constitution, they say.

‘The bones of the constitution should clear and understandable to any interested citizen, not just legislative anoraks.’

The Constitution Reform Group believes that nationalism’s threat to the UK is current and serious.  It proposes to write a paper on how a new Act of Union might look, in time for elections to the devolved legislatures in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, scheduled for May 2016. 

A more urgent debate on the United Kingdom’s future is certainly needed.  Hopefully this group can make a useful contribution to strengthening the Union against nationalist challenges and repairing bonds between the various nations and regions of the UK.  

Friday, 18 September 2015

Offering more and more autonomy will not fend off nationalists' challenge to the UK.

Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, has warned David Cameron not to ‘disrespect’ the Scottish people’s choice to return 56 SNP MPs at the election last May.

Naturally, Ms. Sturgeon has a selective view of which election results should and should not be respected.  She doesn’t show much regard for the overall outcome of the general election and, just a year after the independence referendum in Scotland, her party is threatening to demand a re-run, so her ‘respect’ doesn’t extend to the 55% of voters who opted to remain within the UK for at least ‘a generation’, either.

The Conservative Party won a narrow majority of seats in the House of Commons in May 2015, but it’s clear that nationalists will offer a rolling challenge to the government’s authority in their nations, throughout this parliament.

In Northern Ireland, for instance, Sinn Féin and the SDLP consistently claim that the Tories have ‘no mandate’ to impose welfare reform.  It doesn’t matter that the parties at Stormont were free to craft their own, alternative welfare bill, so long as the budget balanced.  Nor does it matter that the Executive, insofar as it still exists, could yet agree to allocate money from other departments to pay extra benefits to claimants in Northern Ireland.

Nationalists’ unspoken implication is that the British government has no right to do anything at all which can affect Stormont’s finances detrimentally.  And, given, that Stormont’s finances are determined by the Barnett Formula, which allocates money through a calculation based on the budget at Westminster, that’s the same as saying the British government has no authority to cut spending in the UK, so long as Northern Ireland is part of the Union.

This type of logic doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it is the privilege of the nationalist, who rejects the right of the United Kingdom to exist in the first place.

Nicola Sturgeon is pulling the same trick.  She claims that people in Scotland are entitled to another referendum, if the Conservatives don’t reverse welfare changes and abolish the Trident nuclear submarine programme.  The second demand is fairly extraordinary, given that the Faslane Royal Navy base on the Clyde, which houses the Trident fleet, supports some 4,000 civilian jobs as well as housing 3,000 service personnel and their family members.  But these ultimatums are a movable feast; the content will change with the political landscape.

Nationalists’ philosophy will remain the same. If the government doesn’t give the views of 59 Scottish (or 18 Northern Irish) MPs the same weight as those of 650 overall MPs, it forfeits its authority over those regions.  It makes a nonsense of the UK as an integral political unit but, for nationalists, that is part of the point.

They are within their rights to worry away at constitutional fault-lines, however flimsy the underlying rationale, and their rhetoric doubtless appeals to the chauvinistic streak in the UK’s respective regions.  While they think they can undermine the fabric of the Union, and at the same time voice a populist case against controversial Westminster policies, then that is exactly what they will do.

Nationalists cannot be expected to be fair or responsible when it comes to respecting the political make-up of the whole Kingdom.  They will keep demanding, and they will keep challenging the authority of the Westminster government, whichever guise it takes.

That’s why awarding the devolved regions with ever greater autonomy will not be enough to fend off nationalist threats to the UK indefinitely.  There is every likelihood that, while the SNP is in the ascendency in Scotland, it will continuing asking the same question until it gets the answer it wants.   There has to be a more serious and concentrated focus from the pro-Union side on how bonds, connecting people across our four nations to a common British identity, can be strengthened.

Who makes up the ‘pro-Union side’, now that the Labour party has a leader who supports a United Ireland and says he’s not a unionist, is getting less clear, but that’s for another day.  

Thursday, 10 September 2015

The hunt for Euro qualification goes on for Northern Ireland

Michael O’Neill and Northern Ireland are now tantalisingly close to qualifying for Euro 2016.  The team took four points out of six over a prolonged weekend of action and sit top of Group F, two points shy of booking a place at the finals tournament in France.
On Friday night it looked first like the campaign could stall for the Green and White Army, then it seemed like qualification would be secured as early as Monday.  Playing against the Faroe Islands in Torshavn, Northern Ireland made heavy work of their 3-1 victory, after getting off to a perfect start and taking a 1-0 lead in the twelfth minute.

The Islanders capitalised on Stuart Dallas’s defensive howler and equalised before half-time, then, in the second half, O’Neill’s side struggled to break-down a resolute Faroes’ defence.  Only when their opponents were reduced to ten men, after goal-scorer Edmundsson had received a second yellow card, did Northern Ireland dominate convincingly.  Goals from McAuley and Lafferty finished off a tiring Faroes’ team, who looked increasingly ragged.

The victory allowed Northern Ireland to take charge of the group, one point ahead of unbeaten Romania and four ahead of Hungary.  The fans’ attention turned immediately to Monday night’s clash with Hungary, where three points would secure qualification.
It wasn’t to be.

Although Northern Ireland dominated territory and enjoyed the greater proportion of chances, the team’s attacks were predictable and didn’t look likely to break down their opponents.  A goalkeeping error by Michael McGovern gave Hungary a 74th minute lead and then Chris Baird was sent-off controversially for two yellow cards obtained during the same incident.  It looked like the Hungarians had clawed their way back into contention for second place in the group.

Thankfully, deep in stoppage time, Hungary’s goalkeeper parried a Niall McGinn effort into Kyle Lafferty’s path and the Fermanagh man planted a shot into the roof of the net, which means Northern Ireland are still favourites to qualify.  It was a hard won point which came at a price.  Baird, Lafferty and Conor McLaughlin will be suspended when their team plays Greece next month.
The absence of Lafferty is especially worrying.  This campaign has propelled him to second place in Northern Ireland’s all-time goal-scorers’ list, behind only David Healy.  His goals have largely been responsible for a successful campaign so far and it’s difficult to see who else can offer a similar attacking threat.

Michael O’Neill has chosen to use the Kilmarnock forward Josh Magennis in a supporting role from the substitute’s bench.  Magennis offers some physical attributes, but his strike rate is less than prolific.  Whoever fills the striker’s position will hope to have more effective support from their fellow forwards in October.  On Monday evening the bulk of the attacking threat came from set-pieces rather than creative play. 
It might seem blatantly obvious, but Northern Ireland’s main challenge against Greece will be to score goals.  It’s easy to envisage a 0-0 draw and the team travelling to its final game in Finland still needing another point to ensure qualification.  That is a scenario that Michael O’Neill will want to avoid, if possible. 

No-one ever said it was supposed to be easy getting to a major tournament finals.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

The migration crisis is a long-term problem

Migrants on the march in Hungary.
A heartrending photograph of a small boy’s dead body, washed up on a beach in Turkey, has prompted a change of tone from the Prime Minister on the refugee crisis.  David Cameron announced yesterday that the UK will house ‘thousands’ more people from camps around the Syrian border, after suggesting previously that admitting “more and more refugees” offered no solution.

A picture of Aylan Kurdi, a Kurdish boy from Syria, dominated front pages on Thursday.  The three year old had been in one of two dinghies, which left Turkey bound for the Greek island, Kos, a busy hub for refugees in transit to northern Europe.  

Aylan was one of 14 people to die when the boats sank.   The image captured both a personal tragedy for the boy’s family, as well as the misery and desperation involved in a migration described as the biggest movement of people to Europe since the second world war. 

It’s understandable that this powerful photograph has caused an outpouring of public anger and emotion, and the government has responded.  However, committing to take a relatively small number of refugees, under restricted circumstances, is certainly not an answer to the crisis.  Europe is facing a complicated, multifaceted situation, which is unlikely to be resolved easily or quickly.

We know that there are two separate but closely linked streams of people currently amassing in their thousands at Europe’s southern borders.  Firstly, there are refugees, fleeing war in Syria and unrest in the Middle East and North Africa.  Secondly, there is a steady and growing number of economic migrants, intent upon building a better life in prosperous countries in northern Europe. 

It’s easy for politicians to demand that refugees are helped, while economic migrants are kept out, but these two streams of people are by no means discrete and it is not easy to distinguish between them. 
Take Aylan Kurdi and his family as examples.  Reportedly they had been in Turkey for a year, after fleeing the Syrian city, Kobane, when it was attacked by ISIS militants.  Aylan’s father, Abdullah Kurdi, had apparently already been in Turkey for three years and worked as a barber, before the rest of his family arrived. 

The Kurdis fled a warzone and a group of crazed Islamic militants, who regard Kurds as implacable enemies, so by any definition they were refugees.  However, when they left Turkey, where they were not in physical danger, it was presumably with the aim of finding a more permanent, comfortable home somewhere in the EU.  So, they were economic migrants as well and the family took mortal risks to improve their lives.

The UK shares a significant degree of responsibility for ISIS’s spread across the Middle East and North Africa.  In Iraq, Libya and Syria, we were consistently among the most vehement champions of ‘regime change’, helping to dislodge unpleasant, but stable and secular, administrations, and contributing to a political vacuum filled by Islamic extremism.   The notion that western countries should impose values and systems of government worldwide, irrespective of historical, religious and cultural nuances, still drives foreign policy.

Even if the war in Syria were to end and even if relative stability were to return to the wider region, it’s unlikely that the flow of people would stop.  Fraser Nelson has an excellent column in The Telegraph, teasing out the wider reasons so many people are leaving their homes.  The ‘Great Migration’, as he terms it, is a problem larger than the immediate crisis which has propelled it into headline news.

It will only be tackled with any success by long-term policies, carefully balanced and tested.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Robinson returns as unionist parties square up for Stormont battle

Parliament Buildings Stormont

“Well, that escalated quickly”, as people on social media are wont to say.  One moment, the rhetoric around Stormont’s latest crisis was predictable and tired, the next, Mike Nesbitt announced his Ulster Unionist party was set to pull out of the executive.  The UUP’s decision put their Democratic Unionist rivals under pressure to withdraw from government as well and collapse Northern Ireland’s devolved institutions, nine months before the next scheduled Assembly election. 

Initially, the DUP responded through its North Belfast MP and deputy leader, Nigel Dodds, who said it would seek to exclude Sinn Féin from the executive, if the republican party did not “deal with the issue” of PIRA members murdering Kevin McGuigan. 

The DUP, Dodds asserted, was prepared to bring down the administration at Stormont “very speedily”, if the “issue” was not “dealt with”, or Sinn Féin’s ministers excluded.  The exact meaning of that bluster, you will have noticed, was not entirely clear, but the tone of his comments suggested that the Democratic Unionists’ withdrawal from government was highly possible, if not necessarily inevitable.

Enter stage left Peter Robinson, fresh from his summer holidays.  The DUP leader quickly dashed off a platform piece for yesterday’s Belfast Telegraph, condemning Ulster Unionists for ‘fleeing the battlefield’ and implying that his party will confront republicans from the comfort of its executive seats.  The content had not changed radically from Dodds’ statement, but its tenor had shifted dramatically.

Mr Robinson expanded on his article this morning, ahead of a scheduled meeting with the Prime Minister, by calling for a four week adjournment of the Assembly and an ‘intensive talks process’ to address Stormont’s problems.  He wants the content to include, not only the murder of Kevin McGuigan and related issues, but also ongoing disagreements over welfare reform and other matters ‘causing deadlock’ between parties.

Suddenly, we’re back in drearily familiar territory, looking at the prospect of another round of crisis talks to overcome problems which, in properly working institutions, would either not arise at all (the fall-out of a paramilitary murder), or else form the everyday substance of government decision-making (reforming welfare and agreeing a budget).

It’s a favourite tactic for Mr Robinson and the parties at Stormont; shifting the onus of deciding what happens next unto the Westminster government, which risks appearing callously cavalier about the ‘peace process’ if it refuses to facilitate more negotiations.  It also raises the highly unlikely possibility of extracting new funds from the treasury to ‘support’ a new agreement, all in the interests of helping poor, benighted Northern Ireland stagger past the latest obstacle to reconciliation.

However, in the current circumstances, Mr Robinson’s call for talks is designed primarily to wrong-foot the UUP.

If the DUP were to negotiate new ways to test political parties’ links to paramilitaries, it would claim that it had successfully emasculated republicans and Sinn Féin, while the Ulster Unionists shirked their responsibilities. And given that Mike Nesbitt’s party has walked away from government, what is its role in helping the executive surmount its difficulties, if talks do take place?  Mr Nesbitt seems unsure.  Meanwhile, the DUP insists that it has remained in the executive to fight for unionism and it will be an exceptionally truculent partner for its fellow executive parties, should it not get its way.

Mr Nesbitt sensibly opposed Mr Robinson’s proposal to adjourn the Assembly.  Indeed, the motion for adjournment has been defeated in the Assembly’s business committee, courtesy of the UUP, SDLP and Sinn Féin.  This deprives the DUP of more time to decide whether it will appoint a minister to replace the UUP’s Danny Kennedy, whose resignation from the executive precipitated the latest round of political tit for tat. 

The UUP’s decision to leave the executive was an intriguing move, though it also highlights inconsistencies in the party’s thinking.  When Mike Nesbitt became leader of the Ulster Unionists he emphasised his intention to stay in the executive, during the leadership contest.  Now his party has framed its choice to withdraw from power-sharing, not only as a principled stand against IRA violence, but also as a way of creating a working opposition at Stormont to improve the way government here functions.

Nesbitt says he doesn’t want the Assembly to collapse and, certainly, the UUP’s strategy relies on the DUP remaining within the executive.  However, the Ulster Unionists clearly intend to attack Peter Robinson on the basis that he hasn’t had the moral courage to withdraw his party from government.   

Peter Robinson will worry away at any perceived contradictions in the UUP’s position.  His return from holiday has certainly coincided with a more confident appearance to his party’s manoeuvres.  There are suggestions that the DUP leader’s powers are diminishing, but he could yet prove to have enough political cunning left to outwit his unionist opponents again.