Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Ditch the dogma - do the deal

In the imagination of remainers, the Tory European Research Group is a cadre of irreconcilable Brexit ultras, determined to wrench the UK from the EU in chaotic fashion. It’s ironic then, that the ERG’s latest paper is one of the calmest contributions to the Irish border debate, delivering low-key, rather technical solutions to practical problems raised by the frontier, rather than overheated rhetoric.

The document draws heavily on the work of Dr Graham Gudgin, the Cambridge University academic who has examined forensically Brexit’s potential impact in Ireland at the think-tank, Policy Exchange. The audience at its publication included two former secretaries of state for Northern Ireland, Owen Paterson and Theresa Villiers, as well as Lord Trimble, unionist architect of the Belfast Agreement.

The ERG’s aim in writing this paper was fairly straight-forward. Come up with a set of arrangements that will avoid the need for new physical checks and infrastructure at the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, without compromising the integrity of the customs union or the single market and without requiring the UK or parts of the UK to remain under the auspices of Brussels.

The broader purpose is to allow the two sides in the Brexit negotiations to get round the Irish road-block and start putting together a wide-ranging free trade agreement between the UK and the EU.

Unfortunately, the document was always likely to get a hostile reception, because the border question is no longer really about solving practical problems. Northern Ireland and its peace process are being exploited shamelessly to promote competing visions of Brexit.

The European Commission’s negotiating strategy is founded on portraying Britain’s departure from the EU as a binary choice between leaving the single market and the customs union or maintaining a soft border. Theresa May assisted Brussels by offering an unilateral commitment before talks began that there would be no additional checks or technology on the Irish frontier, under any circumstances. 
That has allowed Michel Barnier to maintain that, if her government insists on a meaningful Brexit, then it must agree to an internal UK border in the Irish Sea, while Northern Ireland must remain subject to the EU’s rules and customs regime.

For her part, the prime minister has used Brussels’ uncompromising stance to promote her Chequers’ plan for a diluted form of Brexit. Theresa May claims that the UK must accept a ‘common rulebook’ with the EU on goods and agriculture, in order to avoid an internal frontier. She even went so far as to say that anything that undermines a ‘seamless border’ on the island of Ireland is a “breach of the spirit of the Belfast Agreement.”

It was particularly disappointing to hear the prime minister join the growing number of culprits who have made erroneous claims about the Good Friday deal, since the EU referendum result. The deranged peer, Lord Adonis, claimed this week that certain types of Brexit would be “illegal” under the accord. None of these people can ever cite the text to support their arguments, whereas Lord Trimble, who knows the Belfast Agreement back to front, points out that the main threat to its central ‘principle of consent’ is an Irish Sea border.

If the ERG’s document has a flaw, it’s that it takes the various arguments about Ireland at face value. It attempts to address Mr Barnier’s claims that the single market cannot be protected, unless Northern Ireland remains under its tutelage. It shows Theresa May that Chequers is not the only way to keep trade flowing freely, both north to south and east to west.

In truth, neither the Irish border nor the Belfast Agreement form an impediment to any form of Brexit. The Chequers’ proposals must stand on their own merit and be weighed against the ERG’s ideas for a looser arrangement, based on a free trade agreement. It’s time for all sides to ditch the dogma around Ireland and get on with brokering a deal.

First published at This Union and Think Scotland.

Friday, 17 August 2018

Russia staged the best World Cup of modern times

The bitterness when Russia pipped England in the race to stage the World Cup was palpable.

Very soon, there were incessant implications that the tournament would be a disaster and countless attempts to organise a boycott on flimsy pretexts. Nick Clegg was one of the quickest out of the blocks, demanding British teams refuse to participate in protest at the Kremlin’s insistence on confronting Jihadist maniacs in Syria.

Russia’s stubbornly independent foreign policy and resistance to western groupthink has resulted in it being treated as a pariah. Yet it confounded its critics by staging the most entertaining World Cup in living memory and proved itself an exceptional host. From the opening ceremony to the trophy presentation, which took place in a near biblical rainstorm, Russia 2018 was an unqualified triumph.

The conspiracy theorists will allege that Vladimir Putin stage-managed the event carefully in order to cultivate a positive image of his country (as if micromanaging the experiences of hundreds of thousands of football supporters and thousands of journalists were a simple thing or even remotely possible). In reality, Russia embraced the carnival of football and showed itself to be far from the forbidding place portrayed by Russophobic cliche.

The country is routinely demonised on a range of topics and the thread that links them is a refusal to try to understand the Russian point of view or accept any complication or nuance. Most blatantly, the war with Georgia is depicted as a result of aggression by Moscow, even though the EU’s fact-finding report conceded that it was started by former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili’s decision to shell and then invade South Ossetia.

After such a flagrant misrepresentation, is it surprising that Russia often treats western governments with hostility and mistrust?

Its attitude was vindicated some years later, when US and EU meddling in Ukraine helped provoke a populist uprising that unseated a democratically elected president. The civil war that ensued was again portrayed in the west as simply an outcome of Russian aggression, without any examination of the views of Russian speakers and Russian citizens in eastern and southern Ukraine.

Many western commentators, who are accustomed only to looking for signs of ‘progress’ toward liberal democracy and freer markets or backsliding away from that ideal, have profound difficulty understanding Vladimir Putin’s uniquely Russian conservatism. In particular, they find it impossible to accept the Kremlin’s position on homosexuality, which is not tolerant, but reflects the influence of the Orthodox Church and the mood of the country’s people.

Attitudes to sexuality have changed at dizzying pace over a short period of time. We forgot, almost instantly, how fiercely these matters were contested and the controversy they created in the UK, the US and Europe.

Putin pacified the strife-torn, bandit-ridden province of Chechnya, by contracting a messy deal with the thuggish warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, but because Kadyrov adheres to the unpleasant interpretation of Islam that has seen gay people mistreated across the Muslim world, we’re asked to believe that it is a result of Putin’s homophobic policies.

Throughout his tenure, the president and former prime minister has prioritised economic and political stability rather than ideology. His state-building schemes may seem undemocratic, but they have created a stronger, steadier, more affluent country. He centralised power, where previously it had been dispersed unevenly across a baffling array of republics and regions, rendering Russia practically ungovernable.

Putin took over a state without an agreed flag, without words to its national anthem and struggling to establish a sense of shared purpose among its people. He will leave to his successor a powerful, diverse nation, spanning practically endless ethnicities and cultures, bound together by a strong sense of common citizenship.

This was the Russia that was equipped to hold the best World Cup of modern times.

Thursday, 31 May 2018

Corbyn will never be trusted on Northern Ireland

Jeremy Corbyn’s first visit to Northern Ireland as leader of the opposition was never likely to be greeted with enthusiasm by unionists. Hardly anyone is gullible enough to fall for his attempts to explain away decades of overt sympathy for the IRA. He retains links to Sinn Fein’s leaders and, just days ago, he reaffirmed his preference for a ‘united Ireland’, which, his spokesman says, “the majority of those people across the island” want to see.

Even before Corbyn arrived in Belfast last week, his itinerary generated controversy.

The Labour leader did not meet local members of his own party, who have been involved in a protracted struggle with their leadership to stand candidates in Northern Ireland elections. They argue that voters deserve ‘equal citizenship’ and the chance to vote for parties that can form the UK government, but they’re unlikely to persuade Corbyn, who hasn’t renounced his belief that the British state is an occupying force in Ireland.

He also declined to meet victims of terrorism, claiming that, by the time the idea was suggested, it was too late to organise. The DUP doesn’t agree, saying that it proposed a meeting with victims groups in Derry almost two weeks before his visit took place.

Then there was Corbyn’s decision to deliver a keynote speech at Queen’s University, Belfast.
In 1983, the unionist politician and law lecturer, Edgar Graham, was murdered at the university by the IRA. Sylvia Hermon, who also worked in the law school at the time and is now MP for North Down, was in the student union when the death was announced and was revolted to hear students cheer news of the murder.

The killing was particularly traumatic for unionists, because Graham was blatantly targeted due to his political beliefs and it hardened a perception that Belfast’s main university had become a hostile, potentially dangerous place for those who saw themselves as British.

For an inveterate ally of physical force republicans, like Corbyn, Queen’s was potentially a provocative venue for a high-profile address. But, then again, where in Northern Ireland could he speak that hasn’t been touched by the blood-lust of his fellow-travellers in the IRA?

Maybe it was for exactly that reason that the substance of Corbyn’s remarks were rather less republican in flavour than some had expected.

Although he said he backs the idea of a border poll on Northern Ireland’s constitutional future, he denied that he is calling for one and said that he would not campaign actively for Irish unity were one called.

While he supported recalling the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference (BIIC) — a vehicle for cooperation between London and Dublin, set up by the Good Friday Agreement — he rejected Sinn Fein’s demand for this body to assume ‘joint authority’ over devolved matters, in the absence of a functioning Executive or Assembly.

When he was asked whether the BIIC should make decisions normally taken in Stormont, Corbyn responded, “it can’t do that constitutionally”. He’s absolutely right, but that hasn’t stopped his republican friends, and even Leo Varadkar, implying that the conference could act as a type of interim government.

Corbyn also ruled out the notion that there might be an “effective border” in the Irish Sea, which is usually depicted as an unavoidable feature of the ‘special status’ for Northern Ireland sought by nationalists and the Irish government. Labour’s position is that it will agree a new customs union with the EU, with the effect that no ‘hard border’ is needed, yet informed commentators have pointed out that membership of the single market is the most influential factor when it comes to frictionless trade, rather than customs arrangements.

Corbyn did hearten some liberal unionists genuinely by taking time to visit Lagan College, which at its foundation in 1981 was Northern Ireland’s first integrated school. Politicians from the mainland, and farther afield, frequently take time to support integrated schools when they come to the province, but Sinn Fein is sceptical about children learning together.

The republican party, like hardline unionists in the DUP, prefers to emphasise ‘shared education’, which is poorly defined and usually involves some kind of cooperation between segregated schools, rather than wholehearted integration. Indeed, Sinn Fein promotes a micro-sector of separate Irish language schools, that threaten to fracture still further Northern Ireland’s already deeply divided education system.

It was a tactful move by the Labour team to signal a preference for integration instead.

Yet, a well choreographed visit to Northern Ireland and some diplomatic language are unlikely to reassure unionists or make Corbyn look more like a potential prime minister for the whole country. The fact that he’s promised not to campaign actively for a united Ireland, in the event of a border poll, is only remarkable because of the disdain he has expressed previously for Northern Ireland’s British status.

Corbyn also recently denied claims by the SNP MP, Mhairi Black, that he supported Scottish independence. But then he would say that, wouldn’t he?

There’s really very little that Corbyn can do to make a lifetime of comradeship with violent republicans any less deplorable. Even if it weren’t for this grisly history, the Labour Leader still openly supports the break-up of the nation state whose government he aspires to lead.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Perpetual crisis likely unless unionism finds positive voice

This article was published first in the News Letter, 21 February 2018.

It may have been Sinn Fein that withdrew from the executive and refused to share power for thirteen months, but the way last week’s talks collapsed allowed blame to be pinned squarely on the DUP. The party has to take responsibility for communicating its position clumsily, but the balance of criticism has been grossly unfair.

After all, what exactly was the DUP supposed to do in the circumstances?

The latest impasse cannot be viewed in isolation. Though to listen to Northern Ireland’s increasingly vocal and partisan cohort of nationalist commentators, you’d think that every new political stand-off at Stormont was a unique and novel affront by unionists.

The truth is that Sinn Fein has used the same tactics many times before. Republicans habitually collapse power-sharing, create a crisis and then allow demands to build that unionists should accommodate them by agreeing some sort of compromise.

If Arlene Foster pushed through an Irish Language Act, against the wishes of most pro-Union voters, why on earth wouldn’t Sinn Fein be back with a fresh shopping-list, 6 months, a year or 2 years later?

We’ve not seen the text of the agreement that the two parties supposedly came so close to signing, but none of the rumoured contents would have made Stormont any more stable or less prone to collapse. Nor was the Irish language act that Sinn Fein says was agreed moderate or reasonable. It would have changed Northern Ireland profoundly and for the worse.

If Gaelic were permitted in courts, it could only ever be used for scurrilous or political reasons. No-one who speaks Irish is remotely disadvantaged by proceedings taking place in English and a court of law is a place of business, where utility is paramount, not an arena to promote cultural aspirations.

Likewise, Northern Ireland’s political system is already stuffed with expensive commissioners, all of whom need offices and staff. The ‘advocacy’ function of these posts means that they’re always trying to expand their remits, in order to justify their existence.

Establishing an Irish Language Commission would ensure that the demands of the language lobby would never be satisfied. If our society is ever to function properly, we need to get rid of ombudsmen and commissioners, not add more.

You can rhyme off the various talks and agreements, Stormont House, Fresh Start, the reboot of Fresh Start, Hillsborough, all the way back to St Andrews, which took the Belfast Agreement and made it incomparably worse.

Whatever the apparent cause, they’ve all followed a similar pattern, once negotiations got started. Even when it was the DUP that withdrew from the Executive, because the police accused Sinn Fein’s paramilitary wing of murder back in 2015, we ended up with weeks of republican demands over welfare and legacy, which culminated in the Fresh Start Agreement.

Throughout all these crises, unionists have struggled to articulate their case and have been prone to taking the blame, but the current log-jam is the most dangerous yet for unionism. There is a swelling contingent of liberal remainers across the UK who are so steaming mad that they’re quite prepared to make common cause with nationalists and the Irish government to try to stop or dilute Brexit.

They hate the DUP, its staunchly pro-leave views and its alliance with the Conservative government, with an ardour that even unionists who voted ‘remain’ struggle to accept or understand.

It’s hard to sympathise with that party entirely, because it created many of the problems unionism now faces. When it negotiated the St Andrews Agreement in 2007, it turned a blind eye to government commitments on the Irish language and diluted the competitive element of Northern Irish politics, probably deliberately, by changing the mechanism for nominating the first minister.

It’s impossible to undo recent history or ignore electoral arithmetic, so unionists are left to navigate the situation as it confronts them.

One quite understandable response is fury, because unionism continues to be demonised, even though nationalism has allowed itself to be dominated by leaders who take their direction straight from the Felons’ Club of former IRA prisoners.

Yet anger won’t solve anything by itself.

Unionism is in real trouble if it can’t find a positive, upbeat way to promote its values and challenge the sense that Northern Ireland is in perpetual crisis. And if Stormont is eventually restored, it will certainly crash again unless unionists broker a deal that reforms the institutions, so that they cannot be continually collapsed and politics here become competitive again.  

Friday, 12 January 2018

Unionists and republicans aren't equally to blame for crisis

In his News Letter column (1 January), Alex Kane says he gets accused of “lazy analysis” when he blames both the DUP and Sinn Fein for the lack of power-sharing at Stormont. I don’t think Alex’s analysis is lazy, but I can’t agree with his implication that the two parties are equally responsible for the breakdown of devolved government.

Undoubtedly, the DUP deserves criticism for its conduct in the Assembly. Its role in the RHI scandal was an indictment of its attitude to tax-payers’ money and it gave Sinn Fein a pretext to pull down the Executive. Equally, the party’s intransigence on some issues has allowed republicans to pose as progressives and attract sympathy from naive young liberals.

Yet it’s glaringly obvious that the DUP didn’t collapse government and hasn’t prevented it from being reformed. Indeed, the party has even shown signs that it’s prepared to be flexible on parts of the list of sanctimonious demands, or ‘red-lines’, set out by Sinn Fein.

When commentators try to decode what’s happening at Stormont Castle, it’s easy to get distracted by the tactics of deal-making and miss the brazen lies and distortions that constitute the entire republican strategy.

In his column, Alex didn’t really look at any of the themes of Sinn Fein’s case for refusing to share power with the DUP.

You could summarise them broadly in three parts. An untruthful claim that nationalists are not accorded “rights” and “equality”, a shameful attempt to focus Troubles’ “legacy” investigations on deaths caused by the state rather than the overwhelming majority of murders committed by the IRA and a stubborn insistence on a standalone Irish Language Act (not a face-saving ‘Culture Act’ as the DUP might prefer).

In addition, Sinn Fein has decided to advocate gay marriage, transparently so that it can portray unionists as old-fashioned and unreasonable. While, as a backdrop, nationalists won’t accept Northern Ireland’s entitlement as a full part of the UK to leave the EU with the rest of the country.

Surely it's important to look, even briefly, at all this context and offer an opinion on the merit of these republican positions?   

For its part, the DUP is willing to go back into government tomorrow with unrepentant murders and apologists for murder, who have repeatedly crashed power-sharing at the least excuse, to try to wheedle selfish concessions from political opponents and the government. What is blameworthy in making it difficult for them to do the same thing again?

It’s important for commentators, particularly unionist commentators, to criticise parties that fail to serve their voters properly, promote the Union effectively and tackle issues sensibly. It’s something else to give the impression that the DUP and Sinn Fein are equally to blame for what has happened over the past year, particularly when the media is awash with pundits who are eager to endorse republican claims.

Alex says that Northern Ireland needs ‘stable government’, which is not contestable. He doesn’t say whether he thinks that Stormont should provide that government.

If a deal would create another Executive that ducks important decisions, wastes public money and can be collapsed any time Sinn Fein doesn’t get its way, then, regrettably, direct rule is currently the more palatable option.