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.