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A forum to discuss new ideas and perspectives on Unionism…

Response to O’Neill’s post on English nationalism

Over at Three Thousand Versts I outline some thoughts on English nationalism and the call for an English parliament, inspired by O’Neill’s post, below.

Filed under: Uncategorized

A Federal Union…or bust?

Arthur Aughey has described the brand of English nationalism emerging since the devolution settlements of the late 90s as still “a mood, not yet a movement”. A part of that “mood” is the Campaign for an English Parliament, their strategy outlined here is:

to assemble the most powerful coalition of expert and public opinion possible with a view to securing an English referendum on the question of establishing a Parliament for the residents of England.”

A prominent member of that campaign, David Wildgoose, recently delivered the following speech at the Liberal-Democrats conference, outlining the stark choices, as he sees it, presently facing the United Kingdom.

It’s obviously directed primarily at a Lib-Dem audience but I believe there is enough food for thought also for the  Unionist reader to justify publishing it here in its entirety:

“I was the Liberal Democrat candidate at the 1994 Rotherham by-election where I was privileged to finally meet Richard Wainwright, who had been Liberal MP for Colne Valley. Back in 1977 during the first devolution debates Richard said “For a government to propose that some British people shall have two Parliaments to shout for them, while others are left with only one, is the last word in political debauchery”.

During the same debates, the Tory George Gardiner made the following point: “What kind of argument would we confront from the Scots and the Welsh if it were proposed, instead of a Scottish or Welsh Assembly, to set up only an English Assembly, but still to bring the full number of English members to this House or even to increase their number proportionately, to continue to vote on Scottish and Welsh matters, which, in the case of England, had already been devolved to an English Assembly? We know very well that there would be uproar in Scotland and Wales.”

Of course, things have moved on from then. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all now have Devolution. As Richard Wainwright put it, they all have 2 Parliaments to shout for them and their interests. The exception, of course, is England. <> [An additional interjection caused by Andrew George MP having just described Devolution as having occurred to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland leaving only the “disgruntled remainder” and that we needed some means of dealing with the “remainder”.]

We have gone past the point of John Major’s campaign in 1997 that we had just “48 hours to save the Union”. That anti-Devolution battle was lost. The Union survives. It is however still under threat, not least by the growing resentment within England at the second-class citizenship that has been foisted upon us without our leave. Because the people of England have been prejudicially disadvantaged post-devolution, in a way that the Scots and Welsh never were pre-devolution.

“At the very least, the English deserve the opportunity to decide. They should be offered a referendum, just as the Scots and Welsh were, on their constitutional future. Failure to provide that option would be a shocking display of disdain for nearly 50 million United Kingdom citizens”. Not my words, those of the Conservative David Davis.

The current situation is not stable and won’t last. Reversing Devolution is no longer an option, if it ever was. If the Union is to survive then a positive case for this must be made that addresses the conflicting desires of the people that make up the United Kingdom.

The Campaign for an English Parliament believes that this can be addressed by the creation of an English Parliament to stand alongside those of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

A federal Union will enable us to separate what divides us from what unites us. To get the best of both worlds. Independence on health, education, social policies, to plough our own furrow in a manner we find appropriate. But united as one voice when speaking on the world stage politically, economically and militarily, alongside the social solidarity to help each other out when dealing with such pressing matters as unemployment or the environment.

There is of course one other option for the nations of the United Kingdom, the one that will otherwise inevitably be chosen by default.

Breakup.

Many of you, like me, will have been watching the BBC’s recent series of programmes on Scotland. “Dinner with Portillo – Why Should We Care About Scottish Independence?” was broadcast on BBC4 on the 15th September and had a number of well known people openly discussing the breakup of the Union. The majority were actually in favour of such a prospect. Portillo and Clogharty’s opinion could best be described as “Close the door quietly when you leave”, an attitude which, if anything, infuriated the Scottish Nationalists even more than that of wanting them to stay and which Hardeep Singh Kholi described as “typical English arrogance”.

Hardeep had something else to say as well.

“Why should the English stomach Scots MPs having a say on their political future when the Scots wouldn’t for a moment accept the reciprocal arrangement, it would be unconscionable in Scotland?”

Indeed.

Henry McLeish, the former Labour First Minister of Scotland, and the man who saw the Scotland Act through Westminster, was also at that dinner. He has said that the English need a voice and that the current assymmetric devolution cannot be sustained.

The Welsh Conservative Assembly Member David Melding has just published a book “Will Britain Survive Beyond 2020?”. He says “The best way to preserve Britain as a multi-national state is to accept that the UK…requires a new settlement. This settlement will need to be federal in character so that the sovereignties of the Home Nations and the UK State can be recognised in their respective jurisdictions”.

George Monbiot, speaking at the recent Plaid Cymru conference has also called for an English Parliament.

And so on.

Yes, there is plenty of thinking going on in all the major parties.

Apart from one that is.

A party that claims to be set up on a federal basis and which publishes manifestos for Scotland and Wales but not England. A party that has a Scottish Conference, a Welsh Conference, but not an English Conference. The party which has benefited greatly from the Proportional Representation elections to the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments and has the most to gain from an English Parliament that is likewise elected by PR – but which inexplicitly does not support such an outcome. The Party that in the past liked to claim that it was the “big thinker” on constitutional issues but which now sits on the sidelines and pretends that nothing has changed and thus nothing needs to be done.

YOUR Party.

Tom Nairn in his book “After Britain” said “Blair’s Project makes it likely that England will return on the street corner, rather than via a maternity room with appropriate care and facilities. Croaking tabloids, saloon-bar resentment and back-bench populism are likely to attend the birth and have their say.” Looking at the news reports of the “English Defence League” I would say that those are prescient words.

Here are some more, from Neal Ascherson:
“Yes, there is an emerging Englishness which is still thought to be slightly incorrect. Something is bursting to come out. But sadly, the English intelligentsia, or the liberal English middle class, which ought to be leading political developments, ought to be taking over this emerging feeling; saying yes, let’s make a democratic, tolerant, forward-looking nation; is just sitting back and saying ‘English nationalism, awful, horrible, leave it to the yobs’.”

England is being reborn. Some of us are campaigning for that democratic, tolerant, forward-looking nation. For example, I have here some leaflets from the “Workers of England Union”, a Union recently set up to campaign on behalf of the ordinary working people of England. The back cover says “Join a union that cares for England and its workers”. The front cover says “Putting the workers of England first”. Yes, England is being reborn, with or without you.
And so my ongoing question to you is, Are you going to join us in that project, or remain with the reactionaries?”

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No need for unionist unity but unionist civility might help

Unionist unity is for unionist politicians a bit like belief in God is for American politicians: one has to claim to subscribe to it no matter what one really thinks. When asked many if not most ordinary unionists suggest that it would be a good idea. It has also in the past served unionism very well: the fairly united response to Home Rule was almost certainly a major help in the early twentieth century. More recently the united response to the Anglo Irish Agreement may not have defeated it but it did make unionist anger very clear and may have helped prevent further concessions from the Thatcher government.

Years ago when the UUP was the dominant unionist party some talked about unionist unity and there was an assumption that the likes of Peter Robinson might, after Paisley left the scene, be persuadable to become important members (though probably not leaders) of the UUP. Over the last few years when Peter Robinson talked about unionist unity there was often the suspicion that what he meant was the DUP swallowing up the UUP. Now of course we are in a state of flux with the main unionist party the DUP assailed from two sides with the TUV and UUP offering their own distinct visions of the unionist way forward each quite different both to the others and the DUP’s.

The question then is would unionist unity gain anything and would it have significant detriments?

Clearly unity would have certain significant advantages: the pool of talent from which each party draws its leaders, representatives, policy makers (and even spin doctors) would be enlarged. At times each of the parties has probably privately bemoaned its relatively limited talent pool and has wished that it could pinch some talented members from one of the other parties. That is of course not a problem by any means unique to unionism and even in UK wide major parties there have been occasions when they have wanted to bring in outside talent (or take it from their opponents).

A second advantage from unity would of course be financial. Money is often overlooked in politics or it is left to an unfortunate treasurer to try to sort out the money. None of the unionist parties is vastly wealthy and certainly they have much less money than the likes of Sinn Fein. A united unionist party would of course have access to greater funds than any one party alone. This would clearly be useful in production of all the different things required: buildings and offices cost money, the hiring of venues can be expensive, production of pamphlets and manifestos is costly. In addition having staff and paying people to work on constituency issues and even on policy is very expensive and clearly one could save money from fewer parties.

Finally there is the argument that unionist voters are turned off from voting by having too much choice. This is a recurrent suggestion from less politically motivated and although it may sound like an anathema to the highly motivated may make more sense than people tend to think. As an example the government tried very hard to introduce choice into the NHS with choices for operations etc. However, very frequently it was found that what patients actually wanted was not choice but high quality care from their local hospital. The average patient did not want to pour through success, complication and infection rates for four or more hospitals: they expected their local one to be good enough. Equally one might argue that for the less politically committed unionist voter a straight forward option of a single good quality unionist party with convincing representatives might increase the chances of the garden centre vote turning out.

All the above arguments may have significant merit. I would submit, however, that unionist unity if by that we mean a single unionist party would be detrimental to unionism. The central problem is of course that unionism is not like say an operation. It is not a case that one needs a single sort of unionism; it is much more like retail, the different unionist parties offer their options to the public and they can chose the one they want.

Unionists who cast their votes for each of the three parties (or do not bother to vote) are also likely to have very differing hopes and wishes for their party of choice. Some will regard their party as the paragon of all political virtue, others that they are the best option in the circumstances. In addition some voters will view the parties they do not vote for in a relatively favourable light whilst others will regard them as a shower of bigots / lundies / idiots or whatever.

With such diverse aspirations it is unreasonable to expect the unionist parties to coalesce under one banner and it might be, that far from increasing the vote, a single united unionist party would actually decrease the total unionist percentage.

Of course multiple unionist parties presents problems at elections, particularly first past the post elections such as Westminster where they ensure FST remains firmly in SF’s hands despite a large unionist minority and may very well keep South Belfast with the SDLP despite a unionist majority. A significant degree of vote shredding could also result in the loss of Upper Bann and even possibly East Londonderry. This is a problem which should not be underestimated and the unionist electorate may be extremely annoyed by major self inflicted losses. Although each of the parties has its own distinctive position and major disagreements with those of its opponents; some cognisance needs to be taken of the danger of foisting upon the electorate their non representation by republicans. Overall, however, this danger is unlikely in Upper Bann, even more so in East Londonderry; in South Belfast would result in representation by a perfectly reasonable member of the SDLP and in FST would result in the nationalist / republican majority electing their own candidate. As such although it might cause significant irritation a lack of pacts would not be the absolute end of the world.

A greater problem could even exist in the next assembly and council elections. Although they are proportional representation there is the danger of non transfer of votes; clearly one cannot force an elector to vote for someone number 2 or 3 but the climate of bitterness and invective between the parties does not help make them transfer attractive. A supporter of each of the parties could legitimately point to major failings in each of the other parties and indeed in their public representatives. However, the level of personal invective should undoubtedly be lowered and the tendency to accuse one’s opponents of utter bad faith, of having achieved absolutely nothing and indeed of such nonsense as being a closet republican needs to be stopped. Clearly the art of political spinning is not going to go away you know (and as a practitioner of that art I am hardly going to stop) but acceptance of some good faith from one’s unionist opponents might be appropriate.

There are many reasons, both theoretical and practical, why unionist unity is not an option or even desirable at this time. However, as I mentioned in my last blog there are good reasons for a confident unionism and indeed as I have mentioned on slugger there are reasons to see a degree of consensus on the appropriate direction of travel for unionism. We should continue to argue and debate about the way forward but to constantly accuse one another of dishonesty or bad faith is not especially useful nor popular with the unionist electorate.

Filed under: DUP, unionist unity?, UUP

End of Week Two

A slightly later than planned weekly review … but here goes.

In order to illustrate how life has been in the early phase of this blog, as of today we have 22 posts published and 74 comments have been made in response. We’ve also achieved over 2,700 views. Things are going well and I hope the momentum (and comments) continue. (I’ll stop calling out those stats from now on.)      

Here’s what I’ve learned over the past two weeks:

Firstly off, the quality of the material going up on the site is far, far superior to the visual quality of the blog. In short, the contributions being made here deserve better – so we’re looking into how to make this site more striking, neater and better organised. That may require some finance, free time and planning… so I’m afraid any cataclysmic change in appearance is some way off. But bear with us, we are aware of this blog’s short-comings and we are setting about improving things as quickly as we possibly can.

Secondly, I had hoped to be able to select a theme for a week and to invite contributions – initially from political parties – to tie in with the theme (kind of like how a magazine works with its ‘features list’). But this hasn’t been possible to do. Party press offices are either under-resourced or are focused on lots of other things. So we’re going to have to adapt our approach (but we’ll continue to seek the maximum level of contribution from political parties here). At the moment, we have made requests for material from all the main unionist parties (UUP / DUP / TUV / PUP) – we’ll post these up as soon as they arrive with us.

Thirdly, one of the major goals of this blog is to create the highest quality of engagement possible by inviting the greatest range of contributions .  One layer of engagement is political, but I’d really like to see voluntary and community sector people involved here. As stated elsewhere, this site isn’t for unionists to talk to each other – it’s hopefully an opportunity to take part in a much bigger conversation. We’ll make direct contacts where we can, but if you are involved in the voluntary and communtiy sector please do contact us with suggestions for topics to cover, or suggested material to post up.

The week ahead…

  • Pint of Unionist Lite is planning a piece for Wednesday based around an interesting speech that was made to the Lib Dem conference.
  • DividedLoyalites is hoping to produce a piece on Europe.
  • WB Maginnis is toying with the idea of tackling unionist confidence (following on Turgon’s great piece previously)
  • A second piece from Turgon is going up later today
  • We have our first piece online from new blogger thefreshthinking

There’s more to come in addition to the above. As ever, leave a comment or drop us a line on openunionism at googlemail dot com

Filed under: Weekly review

Of Mutual Vetoes and the Division of Power

The DUP has been criticised for handing Sinn Fein a veto in the governance of Northern Ireland.  And it’s  true we have, Stormont is indeed effectively controlled by the mutual veto’s of the two largest parties.  I intend to examine to what extent this system is desirable to Unionism; how it ought to function and what is preventing it from functioning.  (Peter Robinson has opened a debate on alternatives to the present system based on weighted majorities, but that is subject enough for a separate article.)

The previous alternative to mutual vetoes was the system of the division of power tried in the years following the Belfast Agreement.  This system gave near absolute power to individual ministers who were pretty much free to do as they wished within their own departments.  This was effectively repartition by department, allowing Sinn Fein the opportunity to implement their Marxist and republican ideology within whichever departments their ministers controlled, as we saw when Martin McGuiness ended the old 11+ transfer system at the stroke of a pen.  This system was generally accepted as being unsatisfactory by Unionists and led in no small part to the peoples rejection of the Ulster Unionist Party.

At St. Andrews the DUP removed this level of power from individual ministers making it harder for them to take action in their departments without cross-party support on the Executive.  This gained for Unionism a veto over the republican agenda at the price of allowing them also to have a veto over our own policies.  Given the aggressive ever growing nature of republican demands I contend that this system has made good sense for Unionism and has been effective in ‘stopping the rot’ of never-ending concessions to Sinn Fein.

The Unionist position is essentially one of maintaining the status quo, this makes us essentially conservatives, (note the small c folks.)  We already have what we want, Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom, we’re happy with our constitutional position; what we have we hold.  A system of mutual vetoes works well at preventing the erosion of our current position.

Republicans on the other hand need a system with in-built scope for change, by definition they aren’t satisfied, their goal of a United Socialist Ireland remains an unfulfilled dream.  What they had before St. Andrews was a process with no effective brake other than a collapse of the institutions, and even then upon restart they normally elicited further concessions.  Mutual vetoes has been a major step forward for Unionists, for the first time in over a decade the republican juggernaut has been halted, at least for the present.

Unionists have vetoed progress for Sinn Fein on the Irish language; this is desirable not because we should be opposed to the language, but because we should oppose the manner in which Sinn Fein use it to mark political territory.  (Anyone who actually cares about the language from a cultural point of view should oppose what Sinn Fein tries to use it for as well.)

Unionists have vetoed settlements for on-the-runs and despite lots of smoke and noise Unionists have vetoed the devolution of Policing and Justice in a form desirable to republicans.  As time goes on the form that any eventual devolution of Policing and Justice may take becomes increasingly different from what republicans must have first envisaged for themselves.  Indeed, as Sinn Fein are now prevented from ever holding the Policing and Justice Minister post, by the same system of mutual vetoes, one is forced to conclude that their only reason for persisting to demand devolution is to save face!

Mutual vetoes have been effective on the long-term constitutional issues, however, it is clear that the current system is not delivering in day-to-day matters for the people of Northern Ireland.  Why is this?

What ought to happen is that, recognising the bind the system puts them in, the parties should sit down at the start of the year and hammer out an agreed program along the lines of, “You want this, well you can have it if we can have that.”   Not pretty, but it’s how coalition governments work everywhere else. German voters yesterday had the choice between an Angela Merkel government that would introduce a €7.50 minimum wage and an Angela Merkel government that would cuts taxes, depending upon which party ended up in a position to be her coalition partner.

Why hasn’t it worked here?  Because, Sinn Fein, frustrated at failing to progress their Republican agenda, have let down all the people of Northern Ireland,including their own voters, by failing to engage in proper bread and butter governance!

If the current system isn’t working the goal must be to find a system that allows more effective decision making whilst maintaining protection against concessions to republicanism.  Proposals for such alternatives are something I intend to consider in a future article.

Filed under: DUP, power sharing

Thoughts on Voluntary Coalition

In my first blog on Open Unionism I looked at what I see as increasing confidence (with good reason) within unionism. I have also looked at the need for an increase in civility within unionism and previously on slugger on the unionist consensus for a way forward in Northern Ireland. The question is can we be civil enough to one another and can we have the confidence to think about what would be required to make the unionist consensus vision a reality?

The consensus seems to be in favour of an end to mandatory coalition and some form of more normal political system with weighted majorities to ensure no return to a simplistic majority rule which nationalists rightly remember as being discriminatory. The problem of course is that this very real and very reasonable sense of grievance and fear of unionist dominance means that nationalists are not going to leap at the prospect of dismantling the “ugly scaffolding” of our current arrangements. The rapid back tracking of Mark Durkan after he made the comments about dismantling the ugly scaffolding show that there are severe dangers in this for nationalists. Those unionists who expect the SDLP to play the role of collective Uncle Toms allowing a cross community veneer to cover a return to the halcyon days of Viscount Brookebourough are sorely mistaken.

The SDLP are of course efficient and competent politicians, they showed themselves the match of the unionist politicians in negotiations prior to the Belfast Agreement; indeed one could suggest that for many years in the 1980s and 1990s John Hume ran rings around unionist politicians. If unionists think that the SDLP would meekly take up the proffered status of junior partner in order to make a weighted majority workable they are also surely mistaken. Again the SDLP are far too clever to buy into such a system. In addition by some incredible chance they were that stupid they would of course be decimated at the polls in the next set of elections.

If unionists are to persuade nationalists and especially the SDLP of their bona fides and indeed the advantages which would accrue to the whole community from a radical change to the current system they need to consider just how much massive outreach would be needed and just how much we would need to be willing to concede. To appeal simply to nationalists public spiritedness and point to the current chaos, deadlock and inertia which passes for government is not enough. The offer of increased competence in government or additional power for SDLP ministers is also not enough.

Rather unionists need to be willing to consider massive and radical outreach on issues with specific resonance to nationalists. These issues would need to be placed very clearly on the table beforehand. To be specific we need to consider an Irish Language Act, movement on the devolution of policing and justice, cross border bodies and the like; maybe even the issue of the Maze stadium.

Furthermore it would not be simply a case of offering nationalists a set of predefined positions on each of these issues, rather it would be to tell them that we would negotiate and agree compromises on these and other issues of concern to nationalists, compromises which would be considerably more pro nationalist than they are now.

For parties such as the TUV and DUP to assume that in a weighted majority system we would have to make less concessions than now would be extremely naïve. It is abundantly clear that we would be unable to convince nationalists of the merits of such a system and as such would be unable to get the British government to agree to it. The CUs may feel that they can move beyond unionist / nationalist politics and offer a new future. That may be the case but short of some sudden seismic shift that is extremely unlikely in the short term. As such they too need to understand that in moving towards a system of government closer to a normal understanding of democratic norms then we need not merely to offer nationalism concessions but allow nationalism to choose the issues and concessions they want.

Whilst I am not suggesting that we concede to every demand nationalism might place upon us we would need to be willing at times to move to a place wherein we would be less than wholly comfortable. Let us remember that we would be asking exactly the same of nationalists.

If we could do that and persuade nationalists of this then there would be considerable benefits for unionism in terms of competence of governance. However, those nationalists who might putatively enter into government would also have to feel likely to gain from government and that means not only gain power for themselves and their party nor merely improve the competence of government but also forward the nationalist agenda.

If that were to happen those nationalists might well gain electorally at the expense of those unwilling to enter into such arrangements (realistically likely to be SF) but that would only be by having advanced not merely the cause of good governance but also the specific interests issues and concerns of the nationalist population of Northern Ireland.

We need to understand and respect that the SDLP are not nationalist lite but nationalists green in tooth and claw, in favour of a united Ireland, proud of and fully entitled to that. They have enormous advantages over Sinn Fein in terms of ability, lack of support for the criminality of the past and a willingness to engage properly in attempts to make this society work for the benefits of all its citizens.

In addition none of them are about to suggest that a future generation of their supporters might have to go back to violence, nor are any of them remotely likely to justify the existence of the IRA army council. They are not going to go and talk to the IRA after they murder someone and come back and tell us that it was not really the IRA. In addition absolutely none of them ever murdered any of our kith and kin. However, they are nationalists with an aspiration to have a united Ireland, an aspiration to persuade us to enter into that united Ireland and a desire to promote moves towards that unity. They want to promote Irish culture and heritage here within Northern Ireland in ways which at times we might not like.

If unionists want to persuade nationalists of the benefits of voluntary coalition we would need to be aware that the issues mentioned above are the sorts of things we would be implicitly and quite possibly explicitly signing up to. In addition it would be absolutely no use agreeing to such suggestions beforehand and then reneging on them afterwards. That would most likely result in the nationalist partners collapsing the whole agreement and us unionists being blamed for it, or if by some chance the nationalists were willing to stay in it, their electoral annihilation at the next set of elections.

I like many unionists believe in voluntary coalition and an end to the current system of government. However, we need to understand that it is not an option that involves no pain for ourselves as unionists. In addition if a confident unionism is to pursue its fairly consensus goal of voluntary coalition within a renewed power sharing arrangement then we will need to rediscover the willingness to be civil to one another and not simply grandstand every time the other unionist coalition partners make a deal with nationalists which is not exactly to our liking.

Filed under: Voluntary Coalition

Ireland, Europe and the Lisbon Treaty…

This Friday 2nd October, Irish voters go to the polls for a re-run referendum on the EU Constitution Lisbon Treaty. It’s been just over a year since voters last went to the polls on this question. In June 2008 the voters said no to the Lisbon Treaty by a 53%-47% margin.

Last time round I’d have probably voted no if I’d been living back home, but there’s been a lot of water under the bridge since then and with the Irish economy in such a calamitous state this time I’m leaning to the ‘yes’ side. If principles have a price, then a 12.4% drop in GNP and an 8.4% drop in GDP this year alone is good for starters…

I’m not terribly enthusiastic either way however, which is a strange place to find myself just days before polling day. As a bona fide political obsessive, on most issues I tend to hold fairly clear views. This referendum campaign seems different – with arguments that appeal, often strongly, to me on both sides. So in this post I’m not really going to be arguing one way or the other – I’ll just set out the most appealing arguments as I see them on both sides of the debate…

For me, the best reasons for voting yes are:

– I am fundamentally pro-European, although not pro- the current shape of EU institutions. As a southern unionist, I see myself as Irish and British and European – and I’m pro-European for many of the same reasons I’m pro-Union. I particularly liked what Alex Benjamin had to say here about the experience of working in the EU Parliament – “walking around the corridors in the Parliament hearing Finnish, French, Latvian, Dutch or Italian being spoken and having friends from all over Europe. This is, in essence, what Europe should be about: talking to each other, working together and sharing experience and experiences together…”

– Ireland is really in very deep economic trouble at the moment and we need all the friends we can get. There’s not a country on the globe unaffected by this Great Recession but Ireland’s been clobbered worse than almost everybody but Iceland. The ‘no’ campaign point out that Lisbon isn’t about the economy, but were we to reject it a second time it would certainly create continent-wide uncertainty and destabilise the wider European economy. It would also alienate a hell of a lot of folks whom we need as friends if our economy is ever to recover.

– Europe’s been great for Ireland – growing up in the 80s and 90s I well remember all the wee blue EU flag signs beside all the new roundabouts and dual-carriageways and what-not that were modernising our infrastructure. Europe gave us the fuel we needed to ignite the Celtic Tiger in the first place. It seems churlish to derail a continent-wide process given all that the EU has done for us.

– There are some real loons out there advocating a no vote – a deeply unappealing hodgepodge of economic right-wingers like Declan Ganley’s Vanitas Libertas, ultra-traditionalist ‘back to the 50s, dancing at the crossroads’ types like the Coir campaign, and ultra-nationalist types like Eirigi.

On the other hand, the best reasons which would tempt me to vote no are:

– It’s completely undemocratic to ask voters to vote again on pretty much the same deal barely a year after they’ve already said no. The requirement to hold a referendum on significant constitutional changes is one of the best features of the Irish constitution, and this idea that we’ve got to vote over and over until we give the ‘correct’ result really cheapens that. The ‘yes’ campaign posters tell us ‘its your choice’ – but is it really?

– There really is a huge democratic deficit in the EU institutions and Lisbon fails to address this. Worse, senior EU figures seem quite blind to the need to address the deficit. For instance former Irish EU Commissioner David Byrne had an article in the Irish Times the other day in which he claimed to be “mystified by those who maintain that the EU is undemocratic”, before going on to describe how Commissioners get appointed by member state governments, rather than by the voters. He does point out that the EU Parliament can censure the Commission (thereby requiring it’s resignation) – however it is only the Commission as a whole that can be censured – the EU Parliament doesn’t have a right to force any individual Commissioner to resign.

– I especially disagree with the idea of having an EU president not directly elected by EU citizens. If Blair or anyone else wants the job they should be prepared to put in the hard yards campaigning for votes down the boreens of Galway and among Polish farmers, Spanish fishermen, Swedish intellectuals etc etc.

– Some political figures whom I greatly respect – such as the indefatigable Socialist Party MEP Joe Higgins – are strongly against it, on the grounds of protecting workers rights and public services and avoiding EU militarisation. Balancing this there are also many on the Left in favour of the Treaty and it’s comprehensive Charter of Fundamental Rights – and the European Trade Union Congress, ICTU and SIPTU all urge a yes vote.

– The pro-Treaty argument too often seems to boil down to a simplistic ‘Vote Yes to Europe’ exhortation – a not-too-distant cousin of the tired old NI syndrome of pinning a red-white-blue or green-white-orange rosette on a donkey and asking people to vote for it.

So there you have it. On the whole I’m leaning towards the ‘yes’ side, but without much great enthusiasm. The state of the economy will, I suspect, be the decisive factor for many voters on referendum day.

Last time round the opinion polls at this stage of the campaign had just begun to swing round to the ‘no’ side. This time the ‘yes’ seems to be holding onto a clear lead – although the ‘no’ is gaining ground and the gap does appear to be narrowing.

For Northern Ireland, even if the yes side wins in the Republic and the Treaty gets ratified across the EU, that may not be the end of the matter. David Cameron is coming under immense pressure from his euro-sceptic wing to hold a retrospective UK referendum on the Treaty, even if it has already been ratified by the time he comes to power. If such a referendum were to be lost (as I think quite likely) it would mark a real break between the UK and EU.

So whichever way things go on Friday it’s clear that Lisbon, as a political issue, has plenty of life left in it yet…

Filed under: Uncategorized

Conservatives and Unionists selection conundrum

UCUNF has started its selection procedure

UCUNF has started its selection procedure

It might be premature to pronounce that ‘election fever’ has struck the blogosphere (preferable to swine flu), but a post from Turgon, on Slugger O’Toole, does reflect the fact that the focus of parties and commentators alike is now squarely on a 2010 poll. Cyberspace’s favourite Tuvvie does a fine job of describing the existing ramifications in each battleground in Northern Ireland. His piece is a good taster for local contests which will form an intriguing part of the national general election. However, until we have an accurate notion of which candidates are likely to contest particular seats, pre election analyses necessarily remain speculative.

I’d imagine that Turgon and I would disagree profoundly as to the qualities which the ideal candidate would embody. He alludes to the requirement for a ‘hardline’ Conservative and Unionist contestant in North Antrim, for instance. I happen to believe that a DUP / TUV clone would simply be ignored in favour of the real thing and could, additionally, seriously undermine the pluralist ambitions of the UCUNF project provincewide. From very different perspectives, then, we agree that selection is critical to the pact’s chances of success.

European election campaign not withstanding, the Westminster poll will form an important initial platform for the Conservatives and Unionists’ new take on unionism. It is critical that the eighteen faces chosen to launch this project, in earnest, can explain pan UK unionism and promote both local and national manifestoes wholeheartedly. It is entirely self-evident that voters will not get behind a message which is expressed equivocally, or inconsistently. Candidates should understand the principles behind the new deal and espouse them energetically.

With the selection procedure well underway, I am disconcerted by the number of old, predictable names, many of whom have suffered defeat before, which have already been mentioned in connection with important seats. Of course there is a long way to go before candidatures are finalised and rumours and fact do not always coincide.

My hope is that a relatively fresh list can emerge and that it will not, for the most part, be drawn directly from the existing UUP Assembly party. However, I remain a little concerned that forceful personalities will begin to assert themselves around the constituencies, and that the joint committee will be faced with a rather familiar line-up from which to choose.

Of course there are some instances when Assembly members do make the best candidate choices and old faces can best articulate a new idea. As long as there is a clear commitment to quit existing jobs, in the event of election, then involvement in Stormont should not preclude alternative employment at Westminster. The UUP must remember, though, that its ambition is to spread talent across national and regional governments.

I can see a strong argument that Sir Reg Empey should lead from the front in East Belfast. If he were to stand and if he were to win, he would be forced to decide whether he subscribes to Mark Durkan’s view, that a modern Northern Irish party, in a post devolutionary age, should be led from Stormont.  There could be a reasonable unionist counter contention, particularly where the party professes to recognise the primacy of our national parliament. In contrast, across the city, in South Belfast, a fresh approach is needed. The UUP candidate from 2005 now has a crucial role in the Northern Ireland Executive and there is a cosmopolitan demographic which should be receptive to an energetic, liberal young voice.

The Conservatives and Unionists joint committee, charged with producing a final list of hopefuls, will decide between candidates chosen by a twin track process. Their deliberations, it might be argued, should also fall into two categories.

First, they must identify particular circumstances in every constituency, and deduce how each personality might be expected to perform, given local peculiarities. Second, and I believe that this is particularly crucial for a new force in politics, they should consider the eighteen candidates as a ‘body corporate’. That means developing a harmonious team with a coherent message, and avoiding inconsistencies in delivery across the constituencies. It also means selecting a group which embodies the project and its ethos.

If both parties keep these considerations in mind, from the beginning of the selection process, then the committee will have an easier task, as it submits its decision to the leaders.

Filed under: Uncategorized

Unionist approach to Bill of Rights is ‘intelligible and defensible’

Divided Loyalties considers the implication of human rights on Northern Ireland society and concludes that Unionism has the outline of a coherent argument when it comes to Bill of Rights debate…

 

New framework for protecting rights

The Belfast Agreement created an entirely new framework for rights protection in Northern Ireland – a Bill of Rights was one part of that new institutional architecture.

However, debates about the protection of human rights in Northern Ireland have a long and turbulent history and the contemporary debate about a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland is just one more chapter in a story that many argue began in the 1960s with the Civil Rights Movement.

The most recent signpost in this debate was provided by the advice presented to the Secretary of State by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission at the end of last year on the nature, content and scope of a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights

However, with cross community support absent, delays in the Government’s consultation on this advice not to mention their lukewarm response and with a future Conservative Government at Westminster opposed to the Commission’s proposals, the debate is in a state of flux.

 

The unionist argument

Unionist and Nationalist politicians have had very different reactions to both the NIHRC’s proposals and the recommendations of the Bill of Rights Forum issued in 2008. Both in the forum’s deliberations and in the public debate on this subject there have been disagreement and sharp differences of opinion between unionists and nationalists.

If we look at the responses of the main unionist parties, both to the Bill of Rights Forum report and more recently the NIHRC’s advice to the Secretary of State their argument can be summarised in three propositions: (1) Current proposals for a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights lack legitimacy because of the absence of cross community support for them. (2) In producing the proposals both the Bill of Rights Forum and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission went beyond the remit given to them in the Belfast Agreement. (3) Profound concern about the potential, under a Bill of Rights for power over public policy decisions to transfer from the legislature to the judiciary.

By working together strategically on the issue, both the DUP and UUP have added strength to their arguments and so let us look a little closer at the unionist argument.  

 

Cross community support?

Firstly, it is deeply misleading to suggest that cross community support exists for a Northern Ireland Bill as some human rights organisations have claimed using opinion poll evidence as proof.

For example in a poll conducted by the Human Rights Consortium one of the questions posed was “How important or not do you think it is for Northern Ireland to have a Bill of Rights?” According to the Human Rights Consortium, 70% of respondents replied in the positive that a Bill of Rights was quite important or very important and claim that of respondents 69% from the Protestant community and 72% from the Catholic community supported this view.

However, the only appropriate way for assessing the level of cross community support for a Bill of Rights is through the democratic process and both the DUP and UUP have expressed their opposition to such proposals as they currently stand.

 

Beyond the particular circumstances

Secondly, the criticism made by politicians in the Unionist community that the Commission have acted outside the mandate given to it by the Belfast Agreement is a profoundly important issue that goes right to the very foundations of this debate. The Agreement said that the Commission was to,  

“Consult and to advise on the scope for defining, in Westminster legislation, rights supplementary to those in the European Convention on Human Rights, to reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland, drawing as appropriate on international instruments and experience. These additional rights to reflect the principles of mutual respect for the identity and ethos of both communities and parity of esteem, and – taken together with the ECHR – to constitute a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.”

This criticism is made at a foundational level about the way the NIHRC has adopted a maximalist interpretation of its mandate resulting in draft proposals for a Bill of Rights that go well beyond reflecting the ‘particular circumstances’ of Northern Ireland.

Indeed as the final report of the Bill of Rights Forum notes, “no issue divided Forum members more than the understanding of what constituted ‘the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland’.”

Unionism suggests that there should be a strict interpretation of the terms of the Belfast Agreement meaning that a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights should only contain measures which ‘reflect the principles of mutual respect for the identity and ethos of both communities and parity of esteem’. This would be consistent with human rights protection in the rest of the UK and other parts of the common law world.

 

Transfer of power

Thirdly, it is important to recognise that the debate about a Bill of Rights in Northern Ireland takes place against the backdrop of wider debate in countries around the common law world that have similar legal, constitutional and political traditions to Northern Ireland.

In places such as Canada, New Zealand and in debates about a British Bill of Rights and the ongoing consultation in Australia about a national charter of rights, the concerns expressed in those countries about the impact that constitutionally entrenched Bills of Rights have on democracy, in that they necessarily involve the transfer of power from the legislature to the judiciary, are reflected in Northern Ireland.

Indeed as Australia debates whether it should have a national charter of rights, unionism would be wise to examine closely that debate for any lessons that could be learned in terms of its own argument.

The problem with constitutionally entrenched charters of rights in general is that they facilitate the judicialization of the body politic and the legalisation of political discourse. As the great JAG Griffith stated, “What are truly questions of politics and economics are presented as questions of law.”

Most of us value participation in the democratic life of our body politic but do Bills of Rights that are constitutionally entrenched limit citizen’s ability to do this?

 

‘Whose rights, which ideology’?

At a recent SDLP summer school on the protection of rights in Northern Ireland it was noted by a PUP representative that Protestants and Catholics ‘see human rights differently’. To paraphrase the great philosopher Alasdair Macintyre, ‘whose rights, which ideology’?

There is truth in that observation. Indeed debates about rights conceptually, what they are, and in particular debates about Bills of Rights go right to the very heart of many contemporary debates in political philosophy about the relationship between rights and democracy and how the fundamental rights and interests of citizens should be protected.

This debate, however, is often eschewed by human rights practitioners who see debates about rights as irrelevant to their work of practically protecting citizen’s rights. But the problem with this approach is that if you can’t agree at a theoretical level about what rights are, how can you ever hope to have agreement at a practical level and in Northern Ireland we are faced with this dislocation in the debate. 

That unionists and nationalist have competing and very different conceptions of rights, however, only tells half the story when it comes to the debate about human rights in Northern Ireland.

Of greater significance is the argument about the appropriate place for protecting citizen’s fundamental rights. What part of our constitution should have responsibility for doing this? Is it the courtroom, or is it Parliament? Do we have a vision of the political constitution or the legal constitution?

 An ‘intelligible, defensible and coherent’ argument

Arthur Aughey once perceptively observed that “Unionism has been noted for its inarticulateness…This has little to do with the rhetorical skills of unionist politicians. It has to do with the ability of unionists to convey to others in an intelligible, defensible and coherent manner what they believe.”

When it comes to the current Bill of Rights debate, unionism, for once, appears to be articulating its position on a Bill of Rights in ‘an intelligible, defensible and coherent manner’ and has the outline of a coherent argument that it should continue to consider and reflect upon.

Filed under: human rights

Conversing with the electorate – what the DUP needs to do…

In his first post for Open Unionism, Fair Deal reviews the DUP strategic communications and sets out a checklist of ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ for the Party to consider in the months ahead. But first, he starts off with the ground rules…

1.  The Party needs to have a strategic message explaining what it is doing and crucially WHERE IT WANTS TO GO.  The Party has shown itself to be too content with present arrangements and too keen to enjoy the trappings of office. A party that acts as if it has ‘arrived’ and has nothing more to do will be discarded by the electorate. This exact message can be determined but it needs to be positive, future focused and hard-hitting as well as deal with challenges. Throughout we communicate one simple fact we don’t expect to leave the Union.

2.  The Party has very little time.  Over three months have passed since the European Elections in which the party has done very little except a small number of high level internal meetings.  There may be as little as eight months to an election with the Xmas period in the middle of it.  Therefore decisions and actions need to be taking place in days and weeks NOT months.

3.  The Party has a massive task in the 2010 and 2011 elections.  Some seem to wish to forget about the European Election result and slip back into the old patterns, this is a mistake.  Accept that if the party agrees to the devolution of Policing and Justice powers this task becomes even more substantial.  Two other issues with electoral potency are education (academic selection) and the economy.

Communications Checklist

Do’s

Don’t’s

Do offer a vision for the Union as a whole and Ulster’s place within it. Don’t think a few fancy words about the status quo are a vision for Ulster and the Union.
Do recognise the public are not enthused by devolution. Don’t think re-producing a laundry list of what government has done (again) will enthuse them.  They’ve heard it and aren’t impressed.
Do aim to raise the standard of Unionist political discourse both within broad Unionism and with Nationalism. Don’t think invective will work as well now as it did when the DUP was in opposition.  Scare tactics aren’t working with the electorate.  Don’t think wrapping ourselves in the flag and saying Union lots of time is enough in a devolutionary situation.
Do apologise publicly and repeatedly for the expenses issue (and possibly a few other issues) and explain what will be done differently in future.  The ‘self-interest’ narrative must be killed at all costs, this is one way of doing it. Don’t think because it isn’t a media story that the poison has gone.  The poison needs to be drawn before the election so it lacks impact during the campaign.
Do move to end multiple mandates/double jobbing sooner rather than later. How the same principle can be applied to staff members who are elected representatives and to internal party positions should be examined. Don’t let this mean that MPs and parliamentary party are allowed to become irrelevant and all the focus is on Stormont.  This was a fundamental error of the previous Stormont era.
Do re-organise Party headquarters to transform it for the tasks it faces.  The DUP is now the largest Unionist party and a party of government but the structures have not adapted to this. Don’t use this as an excuse to blame the staff.  There is a lack of proper structure and strategic direction they have been operating within.
Do recognise the scale of the TUV’s success both in terms of the challenge the party faces but also public action e.g. do ask for the TUV’s views on P&J. Don’t try to rationalise the TUV performance away or extrapolate how it has peaked/fade etc.
Do adopt a new approach to the TUV’s voters.  They were our voters once and some could be again.  Some are irreconcilable but too many were driven away by our Party’s errors. Do some proper opposition research on Jim Allister. Don’t let personal animosities get in the way. Don’t give unattributed comments to the press describing the TUV as nutters etc.
Do appoint a full-time Director of Elections with a significant budget to spend between now and the Westminster and Assembly elections.  They should have oversight over the policy and press units. Don’t think lots of constituency work is the solution to the party’s electoral problems.  The Party’s problems are political.
Do establish a Strategic Message Board of external people with relevant experience to act as a sounding board for how the strategic message is being rolled out. Don’t think a strategic message is just a phrase for press statements but is communicated in the party’s actions too.
Do accept that the party singularly failed to recognise the warning signs of a bad election (twice).  Ask why? Don’t go looking for yes men and nodding dogs, seek out the sceptics and encourage internal debate.
Do recognise the ability of ongoing parades issues and sustained low level sectarian attacks have in sapping community confidence.  They need to be a policy priority. Don’t just hope these will fade away.  The evidence so far is they will more likely escalate.
Do look to build coalitions with different sections of the Unionist community.  Identify key groups and work with them in developing a policy agenda. Don’t look for wedge issues in the Unionist community.  We are the largest party now we have to act like it.
Do aim to be the party of ideas both for the Union and for Ulster.  Do support the development of a proper and focused ‘Unionist’ think tank. Don’t think that the Unionist Academy as is and as it has been developing is anywhere near being fit for either role. Don’t continue with the adoption of opponent’s concepts and language develop our own
Do recognise the Tory link has some potential

Don’t think blank repetition of Labour attacks will be effective.

Filed under: communications, DUP

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