Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Border with GB would be a massive betrayal

Last week, the veteran Tory Europhile, Ken Clarke, argued that if the UK leaves the EU Customs Union the best solution “is to have a border down the Irish Sea”. His intervention appalled unionists and delighted nationalists, who - in connivance with the Alliance Party - have been using Brexit to try to loosen Northern Ireland’s ties with Great Britain and edge it closer to the Republic of Ireland.

Mr Clarke has made many constructive arguments over the years, from the moderate wing of the Conservatives, but his comments about Northern Ireland have been pitifully few and often betrayed a patronising disdain for this part of the UK. After his former party leader, David Cameron, formed an electoral pact with Ulster Unionists, Clarke told the Daily Telegraph, “you can always do a deal with an Ulsterman, but it’s not the way to run a modern, sophisticated society”.

Nationalists will applaud anyone who supports their schemes to dilute Northern Ireland’s position in the UK. It is Alliance’s demands that we stay in the Customs Union, irrespective of what happens in Great Britain, which are much more insidious and demand the strongest response from unionists.

The party’s stance on the constitutional issue has recently become one of awkward neutrality. Yet its thinking has become so disordered by Brexit that it’s prepared to undermine the principle of consent, risk the Northern Ireland economy and flirt with separatism, in order to resist the inevitable.

Alliance draws its support overwhelmingly from the east of the province, where economic and social links to the rest of the UK are strongest. Traditionally its supporters are in favour of the Union, but they’re often comfortably off, middle-class people, who view some of the more confrontational aspects of local politics with distaste and prefer to avoid the label ‘unionist’.

If they don’t work in the public sector, they’re likely to own or be employed by companies that do the vast majority of their business with the rest of the UK. They probably work and socialise with friends or family from the rest of the country and they may have children who live in Great Britain or attend universities there. In other words, these are some of the voters who would be affected most by internal UK border controls.    

Do they realise that their representatives are prepared to make it more difficult for them to work and travel within their own country, in order to prioritise connections with the Republic of Ireland? If that hasn’t yet been explained to them properly, or the deadening effects it could have on their prosperity, then unionist parties should not rest until every potential Alliance voter is aware of the magnitude of what what that party is proposing.

The prospect of any arrangement or ‘special status’ that keeps Northern Ireland in the Customs Union while the rest of the UK leaves is a serious threat to the Union that shouldn’t be underestimated. Nationalists are pushing the idea precisely because it would bind us more closely to the Republic and weaken our links with the rest of the UK significantly.

The current government is vanishingly unlikely to accept a border at the Irish Sea while it relies on DUP votes and faces an ongoing separatist challenge in Scotland. However, the Conservative administration is weak and, if Jeremy Corbyn were prime minister, he’d certainly be more receptive to nationalist demands, particular if they’re given a cross-community veneer by Alliance’s collusion. Things can change quickly in such a volatile political climate.

That’s why unionists must make absolutely sure this type of ‘special status’ gains no momentum. If an internal border with the rest of the UK were imposed on Northern Ireland, it would represent a betrayal to make the Anglo-Irish Agreement look trivial in comparison.

Friday, 24 November 2017

May's Brexit missed opportunity with Russia

When Theresa May’s speechwriters pondered this year’s keynote address to the Lord Mayor’s Banquet, they couldn’t have been short of potential material.


Businesses and their representative organisations daily pour over every utterance from the Prime Minister and her colleagues, in an attempt to decode how the Brexit negotiations might progress. The Conservative government appears to be riven with infighting and, if it falls, Labour and Jeremy Corbyn threaten to upend British society and the existing economic order. The chancellor continues to wrestle with the insoluble algebra of keeping unemployment low and cutting the deficit, while boosting productivity and raising wages.  


That’s probably why Mrs May’s speech largely avoided each of these big issues and instead reached for a series of well worn accusations, directed against Russia. It was the usual thing; espionage, destabilising eastern European states, weaponising information. “I have a very simple message for Russia”, the Prime Minister warned, “we know what you are doing and you will not succeed”.

Of course, it was clear what Theresa May was doing as well. Rather than address the difficulties and controversies facing her government, she decided to invoke and exaggerate a perceived external threat.

The evidence that Russia has meddled to any effect in western elections is strikingly flimsy and elusive. There’s always a point at which the supposed dossiers and reports require a leap of faith. Just trust us, we’re the experts and we know what we’re talking about.

The supposed intelligence often cites mischievous, but relatively open, coverage carried by Sputnik or RT. Yes, we know that the Kremlin pays for these outlets and that their editorial line is essentially hostile to the western establishment, but their influence is marginal and the US and the UK also subsidise journalism that is hostile to Russia.

As for destabilising neighbouring states, Putin certainly acted opportunistically when his government annexed Crimea, but the subtleties of that situation and the subsequent war in eastern Ukraine are airbrushed by the British government and media.

Mrs May spoke again about ‘hostile’ Russia as she travelled to the Eastern Partnership summit between the EU and some of its neighbours from the former Soviet bloc. Presumably she hopes to persuade Brussels that Britain must remain central to securing Europe’s safety, after it leaves the European Union.

The UK could use Brexit as an opportunity to pursue a genuinely independent foreign policy guided by its own interests and by the FCO’s diplomatic expertise. It could try to mend its frayed relationships with Moscow, build economic ties and, in time, exert a constructive influence on Russian governance.   

Instead, the Prime Minister looks like she wants to use Russia to scare people, distract from Brexit and posture to the EU 27. How disappointing and what a missed opportunity.

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.