Friday, 16 June 2017

Demonising the DUP risks demonising NI voters

There are many less than admirable aspects to Northern Ireland’s largest political party - the DUP - and I’ve written about them extensively.  The Democratic Unionists have a history of sectarian intolerance and rabble-rousing populism.  

Over the years, they’ve changed dramatically, attracting support from mainstream unionists and establishing a wider membership profile, but they’ve never quite ditched their hardline, fundamentalist Protestant image.  

The DUP’s social attitudes are often strikingly traditional, its ideas about Britishness can seem foreign to people in the rest of the UK and it is sometimes criticised justifiably for an ambivalent, contradictory attitude to loyalist paramilitary groups..  

Therefore there are plenty of legitimate reasons to criticise the Tories’ decision to seek Democratic Unionist support to form a government, without resorting to the deluge of nonsense that some journalists, commentators and Tweeters directed at the party when news of a possible ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement emerged.  

The DUP is not a ‘white nationalist’ party’, nor is it  equivalent to the KKK, though its representatives have occasionally made rather ignorant remarks about other nationalities and races.  

It is not a ‘theocratic’ party - its leadership spans various christian denominations and non church-goers - though its membership does contain a high proportion of evangelical protestants.  

The Democratic Unionists certainly cannot be characterised as ‘terrorist sympathisers’, having never endorsed political violence, though they work in loyalist communities where the influence of paramilitaries is strong and a tangle of social links makes dealing with ‘ex-combatants’ difficult to avoid.

Undoubtedly, the DUP’s origins are deeply unpleasant.  Its founder, Ian Paisley, made no effort to separate his early political involvement from viscerally sectarian religious beliefs.  In ‘From Demagogue to Democrat?’, Ed Moloney describes attacks on Catholic property that followed vicious, provocative speeches on the Shankill Road.              

The party was accused of flirting with loyalist paramilitaries, for instance during the Ulster Workers’ Strike.  Later, after the Anglo-Irish Agreement, Paisley wore a beret for the gun-running ‘Ulster Resistance’ movement and spoke about the need for a ‘Third Force’ militia to defend Northern Ireland against republicans.        

Ironically, the former First Minister is now usually depicted as a peace-maker, who led his party into power-sharing with Republicans and his transformation into one half of the ‘Chuckle Brothers’ is a topic for cinema.  Yet the DUP’s current leader, Arlene Foster, a woman who worships at the moderate, Anglican Church of Ireland, and whose political biography is unblemished by extremism, is demonised as a danger to British democracy.   

The DUP still has its quotient of cranks and backwoodsmen, but clearly it has changed in a way that the post-election commentary has not generally recognised.  After the Good Friday Agreement, the party benefited from an influx of disillusioned Ulster Unionists, many of whom are now in senior leadership positions, who were not connected to Ian Paisley’s hard-line Free Presbyterian church.

The DUP is socially conservative, to say the least, but its membership is not monolithic and attitudes are changing.  UUP councillor, Jeffrey Dudgeon, who has every right to call himself Northern Ireland’s “best known gay rights campaigner”, recently refuted the idea that Democratic Unionists are uniquely hostile to homosexuality.  He acknowledges that many “draw the line” at equal marriage, but doesn’t agree that is a reason to vilify them.   

The DUP has its disreputable side, which includes allegations of cronyism and corruption, but it also has a substantial mandate in Northern Ireland (almost 300,000 voters in a population of 1.8million).  Some of the hyperbolic, inaccurate criticism it received shows ill-disguised contempt for Northern Irish voters, and deep incomprehension of a sizeable, complicated political movement that cannot be reduced merely to cliches about evangelical Protestantism and hard-line loyalism.  

The DUP attracts support from unionists for a range of reasons, including the perception that it is best equipped to check the demands of Sinn Fein, which is still led by some of the former terrorists who waged a campaign of murder against their neighbours.  Despite their uncompromising reputation, Democratic Unionists have repeatedly shown that they can be hard-headed, pragmatic negotiators, both in their dealings with the British government and Irish republicans.

Even long-standing opponents of the party are uncomfortable with some of the nonsense currently being written by people who should no better.  From hysteria at the principle of the DUP gaining influence in the next administration, it is only a short hop to argue that the uncivilised, backward voters of Northern Ireland should be denied a say in who forms their government.  That would be to deprive them of the most basic rights guaranteed by any functioning democracy.              

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

UK foreign policy did contribute to terror, but not in the way Corbyn implies.

After both the Manchester and London Bridge terror attacks, party political campaigning was briefly suspended.  However, Islamic terrorism has inevitably become an important issue in this general election and, rather ironically, Jeremy Corbyn is on the offensive, criticising Theresa May and the Conservatives for imposing cuts on the police that put public safety at risk.

This is not a subject on which the Labour leader has much credibility.  Not only has he a long record of sympathising with terrorist causes, he and his associates have also actively opposed many of the security agencies that are charged with keeping us safe.  The blogger Guido Fawkes points out that, just three years ago, Corbyn defended the idea that young British people who had fought for ISIS in Syria should be allowed to return to the UK without “legal obstacles”.

The Labour leader also argues that British foreign policy, including military involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, has helped fuel Islamist terror.  That is a more complicated point that can’t be dismissed by reference to Corbyn’s character and should be broken down a little.

Clearly Islamic extremism in the UK or elsewhere is not simply a reaction to western countries’ role in wars abroad.  The history of Islamism as an ideology is long and complicated.  Its modern prevalence has been explained with reference to Saudi money and the export of ‘Wahhabism’ or the more nakedly political doctrines of ‘Salafism’.

Acts of Islamist terror are not restricted to countries whose military has become involved in Muslim countries.  While some attackers have listed among their motivations perceived ‘wars on Islam’ by the west, Islamic terrorism seems to draw at least as much on religious hatred for western society and a kind of nihilistic youth cult that glorifies extreme violence.

Yet British foreign policy has undeniably contributed to creating chaos in parts of the Middle East and North Africa, where a political vacuum has allowed Islamists to carve out territory, from which they can spread their propaganda and train recruits.  In Iraq, Libya and Syria, the UK has been among the most enthusiastic proponents of ‘regime change’, demanding that admittedly unpleasant, but secular and stable, governments should be dislodged.  

It was always foreseeable that the alternative to authoritarian regimes was increased influence for Islamists.  That was clear even as western leaders urged on protesters during the “Arab Spring”.  In 2011, I wrote about the situation in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood was soon to take control. The army later reasserted its power, but the country remains restive and dangerous.

“Nobody would describe President Mubarak as a democrat, but he has kept a sprawling and potentially volatile country stable and shown diplomacy dealing with some fairly touchy neighbours in the wider region.  The people of Egypt are entitled to challenge his regime - they certainly aren’t at liberty to vote it out of office - but we can’t be blind to the fact that a virulent strain of populist Islamism is eager to fill any political vacuum.
That pattern is replicated across much of North Africa and the Middle East, which is not to say that protesters shouldn’t press for democracy where it is denied.

It’s right to be wary about the outcome of events though.  For governments in the west and their allies in the Arab world, there is some truth in the maxim ‘better the devil you know’.  They can’t afford to disregard broader geo-political issues or throw caution to the wind by cheerleading revolution.”     

Subsequently, the UK was involved in toppling Colonel Gaddafi in Libya, with the result that there is still a civil war in the country.  Reportedly, the Manchester bomber, Salman Abedi, would visit in the school holidays to take part in the fighting.  It’s difficult to envisage how these formative experiences cannot have played some role in his decision to kill concert-goers in his adopted city.                

The conflict in Syria has become the greatest geopolitical quagmire in the Middle East.  While the UK military’s involvement has been limited, Britain provided political backing to the US and ‘aid’ to rebel groups that oppose the government of President Bashar al-Assad.  

Some of the support that western countries have provided rebels in Syria has assisted directly various types of Islamists, including affiliates of Al-Qaeda, while there is evidence that ISIS has been an indirect beneficiary of attacks on al-Assad, as well as ‘lethal’ and ‘non-lethal’ aid.

These circumstances mean that Corbyn is right to draw a link between UK foreign policy and the conditions that allow terrorism to flourish, but the tone and content of his arguments are flawed.

Rather than insinuating that western leaders made young Muslim people justifiably angry, with the result that terrorist atrocities were perpetrated in Britain, we should be asking why our leaders didn’t much earlier identify Islamism as the primary threat to people’s safety at home and in the Middle East.

Why, long after barbarism like 9/11 and 7/7, did the US, the UK and others still pursue policies that benefited people like the Muslim Brotherhood, Al Qaeda and then ISIS?

Monday, 5 June 2017

Focus of Northern Ireland politics moving back to Westminster

This article appeared first in the News Letter's General election supplement (1 June 2017).

Since devolution, and particularly after the restoration of the Assembly in 2007, the centre of gravity in Northern Ireland politics moved steadily away from Westminster back to Stormont.  The tendency was compounded after pressure to stop ‘double jobbing’ eventually put an end to dual mandates, so political heavyweights and party leaders could no longer juggle their responsibilities in both legislatures.
For a number of years, the most high profile political personalities in the media have operated from Stormont, while some MPs became relatively anonymous.  There were even occasional suggestions that difficult characters or party rivals were sent to the House of Commons to keep them out of mischief.
With this General Election, there is a very good chance that the political balance will shift back toward Westminster.  Many of the most urgent challenges Northern Ireland faces currently have a UK-wide dimension, while our own politics has had a higher profile on the national stage.
The most obvious examples revolve around Brexit.  No issue is likely to have a greater impact on Northern Ireland’s immediate future and the negotiations for a deal with the EU will be conducted by the next UK government.  
All the most relevant debates and votes that could influence the next prime minister’s approach to Brexit will take place in the House of Commons.  There may be some limited opportunities to lobby the government from the UK’s devolved institutions, but the important decisions will be thrashed out at Westminster.   
Currently Northern Ireland’s political institutions are not even operating.  Theresa May’s snap general election brought negotiations to form a new executive to a juddering halt.  
Perhaps, with campaigning out of the way, the parties will get back to their talks with renewed urgency.  However, some of the ‘red line’ demands made by Sinn Fein look insurmountable without important concessions by the DUP.  Included in this shopping list is a demand for special treatment for ‘legacy inquests’ into incidents involving the security forces during the Troubles, that would be deeply unpalatable to many unionists.
There is a serious chance that the parties will miss their deadline to form a power-sharing executive by June 29th.  In that circumstance, the Secretary of State, James Brokenshire, is expected to suspend devolution and restore direct rule from Westminster.  That means that the House of Commons will debate and legislate on matters currently decided by Stormont.
In their general election manifesto for Northern Ireland, the Conservatives have already ruled out any form of ‘joint sovereignty’ with Dublin, if direct rule is restored.  It’s significant that the governing party of the UK was prepared to make any pronouncement on the prickly issue of sovereignty here, during a campaign, rather than simply ignore the issue.  
The Tories wish to stress their credentials as the party that can strengthen the Union.  It’s also likely that they wish to emphasise the contrast between their party and Labour under Jeremy Corbyn.
Corbyn’s links with Sinn Fein and the IRA have become an enduring theme of the election.  There is ample evidence that the Labour leader and some of his colleagues had deep sympathies for the republican cause, up to and including apologising for its violence.
The Conservatives portray Corbyn as a firebrand, extreme left-wing MP, who attended pro-IRA meetings and rallies, to deliver an uncompromising message that the armed struggle for a united Ireland was justified.  He says that he was merely encouraging republicans to negotiate, by delivering a message of peace in language they would find “friendly”.
Whichever version you believe, it’s been a long time since Northern Ireland was debated so lengthily and intensely by national parties at a general election.  
The more immediate issue of the Irish border after Brexit has also formed part of the campaign.  Everybody agrees that a ‘hard border’ is undesirable, but the Conservatives were attacked for pledging only that the frontier will remain as “frictionless as possible”.  
With all of the arguments currently raging around Brexit, it’s some time since Northern Irish politics was so engaged with big national questions and UK-wide issues so entwined with local disputes.  It also seems quite possible that the MPs we return after this election will be the only representatives who get to vote directly on legislation relating to Northern Ireland, for the foreseeable future.
The political centre of gravity here looks to be shifting perceptibly back to Westminster.