Thursday, 23 March 2017

How can Northern Ireland make the most of Brexit?

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

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

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

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Irish debate on Brexit needs to move on from referendum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

The Assembly election: picking over the wreckage

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

Thursday, 16 February 2017

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Local Labourites should stop sucking up to republican Corbyn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Stop indulging Stormont parties' failures

This article appeared originally in the News Letter, 12 January 2016.

The Renewable Heat Incentive is the superficial reason that there will almost certainly be an early election in Northern Ireland, less than a year after the last poll.  The deeper cause is a broken political system that entrenches sectarian headcounts and encourages parties to provoke endless mini crises, when they don’t get their way.  

Politics at Stormont is stuck in a repeating loop, where periods of inactive stability are followed by tantrums, emergency talks and ambiguous, meaningless ‘agreements’ that promise things will be sorted out properly later.  So far, this pattern has allowed the power-sharing institutions to lurch on unsteadily, but, until it is broken, people here have few prospects of competent government, a thriving economy or a harmonious society.

In a normal political system, an election would allow the public to hold its political leaders to account and, potentially, vote a new set into office.  In Northern Ireland, the St Andrews’ Agreement ensures that the biggest question at the ballot box is always whether a unionist or nationalist becomes First Minister, rather than issues of policy or competence.  

After this election, the prospects that an Executive will be formed quickly - even a divided, ineffective Executive - are remote.  Sinn Fein has vowed not to nominate ministers, until negotiations take place on a grim shopping list of demands that it previously promised its voters, but failed to deliver.  

These include action on so-called “legacy” inquests, designed to focus investigations into Northern Ireland’s violent past on the comparatively small number of deaths caused by soldiers and policeman, rather than the vast majority of unsolved crimes perpetrated by IRA terrorists.  Few things could damage Northern Ireland’s society more profoundly than indulging republicans’ perverse view of the Troubles, which legitimises a ruthless campaign of political murder and demonises those who tried to prevent chaos and civil war.      

The dynamics of this crisis are drearily familiar from St Andrews in 2007,  the Hillsborough talks on policing and justice in 2010, the Stormont House Agreement in 2014 and 2015’s Fresh Start Agreement.  This loop has to be broken now, or the same thing will happen again, sooner or later, and again after that, rinse and repeat.

It is not impossible to reform the Stormont system successfully.  The independent MLA, John McCallister, suggested that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, who wield exactly the same powers anyway, should both be known simply as “First Ministers”.  Formally recognising their “co-equal” status could draw much of the sectarian poison from election campaigns and enable smaller parties to challenge the DUP and Sinn Fein.

McCallister’s proposal was rejected, because it threatened the status quo, but he did pilot through the Assembly legislation that led to an official opposition at Stormont, albeit one that is weak and voluntary.  The UUP and the SDLP declined to join the Executive, after the last election, and they are now supposed to hold the Executive to account.  Unfortunately their performance during the RHI crisis was underwhelming.

The two parties called for Arlene Foster’s resignation and attacked her vehemently in press releases, but failed to master the detail of RHI or uncover relevant new facts about the scheme’s operation.  Journalists did far more to investigate the scandal, while, at the Assembly, Jim Allister analysed its legal ramifications more effectively.
     
The scandal was a symptom of a system of devolved government that focuses on winkling the maximum amount of cash from the Treasury in London, then arguing about how it is divided between the two main perceived communities.  RHI means that the public have rarely been so cynical, apathetic and disdainful about local politics.

If our politicians have any shame or humility left, maybe their current appalling reputation provides a slim window of opportunity to finally implement a workable system in Northern Ireland.

After the election, the Government could refuse to facilitate ‘hot-house’ talks unless serious institutional reforms are discussed seriously.   For too long, Westminster has indulged the fiction that power-sharing in Northern Ireland is successful and stable.  

That means, at a minimum, joint first ministers, rather than a first and deputy first minister, and beefed up powers for the opposition, so that there is a genuine alternative to the Executive.  It may also means finally holding the parties to their promises on integrating society, rather than simply talking about it.  The alternative is to continue the succession of crises, controversies and waste.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Council should ignore absurd World Cup motion

The Green and White Army has been dragged unwillingly into city council politics in Belfast once again.  SDLP councillor, Declan Boyle, proposed a motion calling for the Northern Ireland football team to boycott World Cup 2018, due to take place in Russia, in protest at that country’s participation in the war in Syria.

Mr Boyle attracted fewer than one thousand votes in the last local election, but he’s used his mandate to urge a national football association to intervene in one of the thorniest geopolitical issues in the world today.  The absurd grandiosity of his motion aside, it shows a flimsy grasp of the complexity of a vicious civil war in Syria.

Russia’s military support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime is controversial and its methods brutal, but it exposed the ineffectiveness of western countries’ tactics and acted decisively to defeat Islamists in Palmyra and Aleppo.  Meanwhile, the US and European countries have pursued a confused policy, including backing tacitly groups linked to Al-Qaeda, when they have been attacked by government forces.  To put it mildly, the situation is complicated and it isn’t the Irish FA’s job to weigh the merits of civil war in the Middle East, or to contribute to demonising Russia.  

From the moment that Russia was awarded the World Cup, politicians have tried to meddle in the home countries participation and the media has focussed on bribery, hooliganism and Vladimir Putin.  The coverage has been biased and it draws upon the West’s political rivalry with Moscow and England’s hurt at not hosting the finals.  Actually, there will never be a better time to visit the world’s biggest, most fascinating country.

2018 could be one of the best World Cups ever and Northern Ireland fans will have a ball, should our team qualify.     

The dictum “keep politics out of sport” isn’t influential at Belfast City Council.  Whether donning Linfield scarves in the council chamber, or proposing to invite multiple national teams to City Hall receptions, local councillors love to court controversy by debating issues related to sport, particularly football, in the council chamber.  They should concentrate on matters that fall within their powers, and on delivering better services for their constituents.