Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Only irrational GAWA would support the Republic


Losing the World Cup Play-Off to a disputed penalty goal was a gut-wrenching experience for Northern Ireland fans. The faithful supporters who returned from Basel earlier this week might have expected to come home to a country commiserating with its team and reflecting on its achievements, through regional TV, radio and newspapers.

Instead they were faced with provocative demands to back the Republic in its play-off match against Denmark and accusations of sectarianism, based on information that was at least a generation out of date.

The Green and White Army weren’t surprised. They’re used to facing ill-disguised hostility, ignorance and a lack of empathy from sections of the media, including public service broadcasters, whose remit is supposed to be Northern Ireland alone.

The supporters’ hurt feelings are understandable, but do some of their critics have a point? For instance, should Northern Ireland fans show more generosity and cheer on the country country to their south?

The question not only completely misunderstands the nature of football rivalry; it willfully ignores recent history between the two teams and the current situation as regards player eligibility.

Under highly controversial FIFA rules, the Republic of Ireland is entitled to pick footballers from across the island, and for a number of years its governing body, the FAI, has aggressively recruited young players who are already in the Northern Ireland youth setup.

The consequences are easy to understand and add up to a very simple equation. If the Republic team performs more successfully than Northern Ireland, the share of media attention it commands will increase (particularly north of the border) and players and spectators will head south.

When journalists. politicians and other commentators pompously demand that the Green and White Army supports its neighbours in a World Cup play-off, they’re asking fans to do something that’s blatantly detrimental to their team. More than that - no-one who genuinely has Northern Ireland’s interests at the forefront of their mind could possibly back the Republic in such a critical game.

They might have other motives for making that decision, but the welfare of the IFA’s team is not one of them.

Why should supporters act irrationally, against their own interests, just because people who want to prove their own worthiness, and in whose lives football is usually just a minor background noise, say they should? Is it any wonder the GAWA reacts to this chatter with utter disdain?  

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Is the UUP dying?

The UUP last generated energy and excitement when it formed an electoral pact with the Conservatives. Can its new leader find another 'big idea' to inspire an electoral revival, or is the party slowly dying? 


A couple of weekends ago, the UUP held its annual conference. For a party that now struggles to command media attention, it was a particularly important event, because the BBC covered its leader’s speech live and aired a party political broadcast the previous evening.

It's just six months since Robin Swann took over from Mike Nesbitt and then immediately faced a general election, which saw the UUP lose its two Westminster seats. At the conference in Armagh, the Ulster Unionists’ new leader had an opportunity to explain his brand of unionism and most of the coverage focussed on two policies and two buzzwords contained in Mr Swann’s speech.

The UUP opposed the idea that an Irish Language Act is needed in Northern Ireland and it supported changing the way an Executive is formed at Stormont, arguing that ministers should make up a voluntary rather than a mandatory coalition. Swann also described his party as ‘radical moderates’ and claimed they articulate something called ‘new unionism’, though commentators soon pointed out that he didn’t explain what either of these terms meant.

There is nothing particularly wrong with any of these positions and phrases, but they’re not enough to define the party’s purpose or inspire its recovery in elections. Voluntary coalition is a laudable aim, but it’s been discussed for years, and institutional reform is unlikely to excite potential voters.

Likewise, an Irish Language Act is potentially divisive and could change Northern Ireland very profoundly, but opposing it is not a political programme. And while ‘radical moderates’ and ‘new unionism’ are catchy phrases, they’re unoriginal and could mean almost anything.

It would be desperately harsh at this stage to judge Robin Swann for not delivering a ‘big idea’ that finally makes Ulster Unionism relevant to the electorate again. His two predecessors, Mike Nesbitt and Tom Elliott, struggled for a combined total of seven years to explain what the UUP is all about, how it differs from the DUP and why the public should support it.

The Ulster Unionists last generated energy and excitement outside their own party when they formed an electoral pact with the Conservatives, under Sir Reg Empey's leadership.   

‘UCUNF’ was attacked and mocked by its opponents and critics, precisely because it had potential to change politics in Northern Ireland. The abuse it took from the DUP was particularly vehement, because that party was worried that the Ulster Unionists had finally found a way to challenge its dominance.

It didn’t help that UCUNF was mismanaged from the start. The UUP was unwieldy, undisciplined and contained influential members who were determined to sabotage the pact.

A prominent saboteur was the party’s MP, Sylvia Hermon, the plummy North Down ‘Lady’ who swanned around church halls and fetes in her constituency like she’d been raised in the Shires, but told anyone who would listen, "I am not a Tory”. Ironically, many of her voters were convinced that she was a Conservative by instinct, and wouldn’t hear differently, according to those who campaigned against her.   

While she stayed away from the UUP conference in 2009, ostentatiously walking her dog on Ballyholme beach instead, Michael McGimpsey delivered a speech lauding historical Labour figures, while the Conservatives’ William Hague waited to address the party.

That tension came from representatives who considered themselves ‘centre-left’. But for other UUP figures, David Cameron’s Conservatives were not nearly right wing enough. David McNarry, who later joined UKIP, told an audience of Orange Order members that the Tories were ‘wide-boy liberalistas’.

Some Ulster Unionists actively opposed UCUNF, some of their hearts just weren’t in it and yet more saw the deal as little more than a convenient gimmick to get votes. There were constant disagreements between the party and Conservative activists in Northern Ireland, who were often treated like an inconvenient nuisance, rather than genuine political partners.

UCUNF performed strongly in the 2009 European Parliamentary election, but after a series of controversies and rows about candidate selection, it didn’t win any seats in the 2010 General Election. In comparison to some subsequent campaigns the result was not as bad as it was portrayed - the pact claimed more than fifteen per cent of the vote, without standing in Fermanagh South Tyrone - but no MPs meant that, without a doubt, it had failed.

The UUP didn’t ditch the Conservative deal officially, perhaps because Jim Nicholson MEP had been elected on a joint ticket, and preferred to let it fizzle out. Initially, the Tories seemed keener to keep UCUNF alive, but, when it became clear that the Ulster Unionists wanted to keep their options open without making any further commitments, the decision was taken to relaunch the Northern Ireland Conservatives instead. A letter from the Tory chairman, Lord Feldman, demanded that the UUP disband to join the repackaged NI Conservatives and that signalled the end of the pact.

After a rather bitter break-up, it was understandable that most activists, from either party, remembered UCUNF with little fondness. None of which means that it had no merit or that it had been a bad strategy.

This was one of the few initiatives from unionists that had a chance of binding Northern Ireland more closely to the political life of the rest of the nation. At its best, it was inspired by bold thinking and big ideas about the future of the United Kingdom. At its worst, it was disfigured by party political bickering and petty rivalries.

That moment has passed, and unfortunately I don’t think, as my friend Ben Lowry speculated on a recent BBC Talkback programme, that the relationship between the UUP and the Conservatives can be repaired. The Tories now have a much more tangible need for support at Westminster from ten DUP MPs, whose votes are required if the government is to deliver Brexit, set a budget and prevent Jeremy Corbyn from becoming Prime Minister.

The Ulster Unionists could only ever hope to become distant junior partners in a broader Conservative & unionist coalition.

With that option closed down, at least for the foreseeable future, it’s hard to see what the UUP’s next ‘big idea’ might be. Mike Nesbitt came closest to redefining the party when he tried to forge a broad, cross-community alliance against DUP / Sinn Fein government, by forming an official opposition to the Executive and making overtures to the SDLP.

His efforts were undermined by a cool response from Colum Eastwood, the nationalist party’s attempts to use Brexit to provoke a border poll and his own refusal to rule out future pacts with the DUP. Now, there is no Northern Ireland Executive, never mind an official opposition, and if the current, endless talks do result in a deal, it’s unclear whether the Ulster Unionists will nominate a minister at Stormont.            

Perhaps Robin Swann, or another leader, will enable the UUP to finally rediscover its sense of purpose and mastermind a renaissance. Ruth Davidson and the Scottish Conservatives have shown that inspired leadership, and changes in the political landscape, can make the most unlikely revivals possible.

Equally, the Ulster Unionists may never again rekindle the initial hope and excitement created by UCUNF - the Conservatives and Unionists.  That stillborn revolution may yet be one of the tragic later chapters in the story of a dying political party.