Open Unionism


A forum to discuss new ideas and perspectives on Unionism…

Sinn Fein Non-Economics

Fair Deal over on Ultonia translated Sinn Fein’s postion on the budget crisis into a photo of a monkey with his fingers in his (or her) ears.

Responding to the First Minister’s comments on the issue, Sinn Fein’s economic genius Mitchell McLaughlin said: “It’s incredible that Peter Robinson is inviting ministers to anticipate the cuts before we even get the budget statement on 20 October.”

He added that cuts “proposed or imposed by the British government must be challenged and resisted”.

It is a well known fact from when the Coalition Government was formed that cuts, cuts and more cuts were going to be the focus of Government. Sinn Fein’s non-economics is a typical response from a party that believes that our own Government should be paying for what thirty years of violence and murder orchastrated by the IRA cost this region in economic terms. Sinn Fein should be working to develop Northern Ireland and repair the damage that they created.

The first thing that they should be doing is sitting down with all parties on the Executive and working to resolve the situation in order to manage it as effectively as possible. However instead they are behaving like monkeys out to blame the ‘British’ Government for the situation we have found ourselves in. How responsible, eh? Nevertheless how is this new given the fact that they have blamed the same Government for oppression dating back centuries.


Filed under: devolution, finances, power sharing, Sinn Fein, This week, Uncategorized

How do we move beyond defence of the Union, to advancing and deepening it?

In his a guest post for Open Unionism, The Dissenter suggests that the vexed issue of a possible Sinn Fein First Minister is short-termist – the bigger strategic problem for Unionism lies in the failure of Sir Reg Empey to stabilise and provide purpose to the UUP and the DUP’s failure to dismiss the TUV altogether and to regain momentum lost in 2009. These reflect something of the deeper malaise within unionist parties, the blogger says…

King chess piece lying on chessboard

The focus of that debate on the future of Unionism appears to have centred around numbers; focused on whether in the forthcoming 2011 election Sinn Fein might gain a position where it may be able to lay claim to the post of First Minister.

Since the changes following the St Andrews Agreement any party with the votes and seats necessary can lay claim to the post of First Minister. This provides for more equitable power-sharing in that it does not create a hierarchy of parties – theoretically anyone can be a First Minister. Would it make a great difference for Sinn Fein to be First Minister? If you accept Sinn Fein as a partner in Government then why not?

The focus on the issue of First Minister is a tactical one – a means to give purpose to closer co-operation between the parties (if not merger). Yet the real issue is not one of tactics to meet short-term and tokenistic outcomes. The failure of Sir Reg (lost seat, lost leadership) to stabilise and provide purpose to the UUP, the DUP’s failure to dismiss the TUV altogether and to regain momentum lost in 2009, reflect deeper malaise within unionist parties.

Ironically, the arrival of the TUV brought unionist voters to the polling booths and increased the overall unionist vote would suggest that disunity has its advantages, allowing the fractious and independently minded unionist voter an avenue to express discontent with established parties.

Addressing unionist unity from a structural perspective is bound to disappoint. Political party realignment is merely mixing decks and dishing out the job cards in a different order. The electorate is hardly likely to be impressed. Identifying a loss of voter, by class or aspiration, does not address the message sent at the Westminster election: none of the leaders of unionism presented a coherent and inspirational purpose for unionism in the twenty-first century.

A unionist should feel proud to fly the Union flag, and should not feel that it is somewhat diminished when wrapped around those who seek to lead Unionism. It should not be worn in anger, it should not cover embarrassment, and it should not be wrapped around a backroom deal. Discussion on the Union should be a matter of substance, not tactical number crunching: it is a matter for open discussion, not whispers behind closed doors.

Unionist Parties may be under threat through a loss of relative electoral strength. That does not mean that the Union is under threat: which is not to say that the Union cannot be lost. On The Dissenter there is a longer exercise in looking at the outcomes of the Westminster election and reading the runes. There are a few pointers which may shape consideration of the future for Unionists.

  • The overall nationalist vote appears static.
  • Nationalist voters appear just as disengaged as unionist voters.
  • The UUP might consider its future within a regional/national and liberal conservative context, but is otherwise nothing but a fading reflection of better times.
  • The DUP built its presence on becoming biggest: now it is, what next?
  • The unionist voter seemed uninspired by any of the unionist Parties’ offers.
  • The overall unionist vote benefits from disunity, not unity.
  • The SDLP was dominant in 1998. What happened?
  • If Sinn Fein is a worthy party for Government, and to hold a post co-equal to the First Minister then why shouldn’t it hold the post of First Minister?
  • The issue of a Sinn Fein First Minister is a narrow tactical argument that distracts from the lack of attractive leadership from either the UUP or DUP, or from anywhere elsewhere in unionist circles.
  • Short-term tactical considerations will not address the future of unionism as a political cause.
  • The Union is safe: at least that rests with the electorate and not the politicians.

The Westminster election changed very little. The points above have been matters for varying degree of consideration for some time. The election has simply brought them to the fore. Much of that discussion has taken place at Open Unionism and in the pages of the press, and probably around the lunch tables of Stormont buildings and meeting places elsewhere.

Tactical considerations of stopping a Sinn Fein First Minister are given an air of immediacy, including an urgency on discussion of political party restructuring. The larger and more important issue of the purpose and sense of Unionist cause is receiving less attention, perhaps because there is no personal or party gain in thinking outside the box? (It is a lonely place outside the box, and risky.) How does the discussion move beyond the tactical and party political to a more central discussion on the nature and future expression of Unionism fit for the twenty-first century?

Without a common understanding of the central tenets of Unionism there is little chance of Party political unity among unionists. Unionists must know what the Union is for, holding common purpose; it must not be defined by what it is not, what it is against. The electorate wishes positive, not negative, Unionism. With that central understanding would party political unionism mean anything anyway? Is unionism an ‘ism’ at all? How do we move beyond a position of being in defence of the Union to advancing and deepening the Union? These are the questions to be the subject of Looking Forward: Part 2. Later.

Filed under: DUP, guest blogger, power sharing, unionist unity?, UUP, , ,

The delicate art of coalition-building – an insider’s view from Canada

I imagine that many readers of this blog will, like myself, have spent much of the past few days gripped by coverage of the election results, and the ongoing coalition negotiations.

This is just a brief post to point blog readers in the direction of an absolutely fascinating Canadian article on the whole topic of coalition-building, which was written a few months ago by blogger and NDP strategist Brian Topp for the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail.

Brian Topp was a senior negotiator for the New Democratic Party (NDP) (Canada’s left-of-centre party) during their late-2008 coalition talks with the Liberal Party (Canada’s large, centrist ‘natural governing party’).

The article, entitled “Coalition Redux”, weighs in at a hefty 10,000 words or so – it’s absolutely gripping stuff and once I started reading it I found I couldn’t stop until I had finished the whole thing. It’s very well-written and offers a fascinating insider account of the kind of challenges and intricacies involved in coalition-building, and of the potential pitfalls along the way (for example, the Lib-NDP coalition failed in large part because negotiators didn’t adequately consider the impact of the role of the Bloc Quebecois).

The article was posted on Brian Topp’s Globe & Mail blog as a series of six chapters – here are all the links:

  • Part 1 – Coalition Redux: The Prime Minister makes a big mistake
  • Part 2 – Coalition Redux: The shape of the deal
  • Part 3 – Coalition Redux: The shape of the new government
  • Part 4 – Coalition Redux: Things come together
  • Part 5 – Coalition Redux: Things fall apart
  • Part 6 – Coalition Redux: Lessons Learned
  • Enjoy!

    Filed under: general election, power sharing, Voluntary Coalition

    Why Unionism should hand McGuinness the position of First Minister…

    By St Etienne

    “Unionism’s great challenge” has now apparently been reduced to keeping a Shinner out of the perceived top job in local politics. In truth, not a great strategy. We need to get over it.

    Contrary to the most popularly understood of peace-processing narratives (the one that’s painted with the broadest brush), the majority of NI is not transitioning from some kind of guerrilla warfighting capability and into politics. That’s only the people some of us choose to elect. How people like McGuinness can be a role model/leader for NI is any sane person’s guess. But at present neither do we have a sane solution.

    From the initial kite flying of voluntary coalition/opposition/normal politics, it is clear there is a deepset paranoia among Irish nationalists that unionists fundamentally do not want to share power.  And crucially, not from a “we don’t like murderers” principled standpoint but from a “they don’t want a Catholic about the place” perspective.  Ultimately this is wrong, but like it or not that is the perception (perhaps driven largely for reasons of political capital as much as community mistrust). Action is required to change it.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Filed under: general election, power sharing, UUP

    NI’s media has as much to prove as its politicians…

    By St Etienne

    Having a read through of various responses to the Barnett report (all Unionist parties conspicuous by their lack of opinion btw). A disparate range of issues seemed to be targeting various interest groups.

    One report caught the eye – from a young entrepreneur in the form of Liam McGarry, he of McGarryConsult and Wee Man Studios – one of these new fangled iPhone gaming startups.

    Anyway, a notable section to take in:

    NI Political & Media Leadership

    • NI has 11 Government Departments, 26 Councils and over 80 Quangos
    • NI Government has 92 press officers and more advisors than the White House
    • NI has more community, voluntary, advocacy NGOs per capita than anywhere else in the World

    Getting anything done within NI often requires significant political and political skills matched by bucket loads of persuasion and patience. Our government central and locally are devised not on economic or governance principles but on political lines. The recent employment of not one but four victim’s commissioners on full pay provides open evidence of political expediency winning over economic efficiency.

    Our politicians and departments are well versed in generating strategies, grand visions and using buzzwords but behind the gloss – what are the leading political parties’ economic policies? How do they suggest we improve our productivity and economic sustainability?

    The unwillingness to make hard choices over water rates (revenues £400 – £900m) haunt us now that £370m needs to be found, providing further evidence of playing popular politics over unpopular budget balancing. Is anyone willing to bet that we will get a single Department of the Economy?

    Which politicians can ideologically or publicly support wealth creation (e.g. serial entrepreneurs) in the few as opposed to short-term mass job creation (with limited long term prospects)? Can our politicians really win over conglomerates willing to move where the labour cost, tax incentive, grant inducing host country wind takes them?

    What of our media – surely they will hold NI to account on economics? Yet with more press officers (ex-journalists?) than existing journalists and with many hacks looking towards the future (newspaper industry trends v potential lucrative govt press officer post plus pension) who will stick their head above the parapet?

    But what of editors, publishers and printers surely they will push the economic argument… given the massive public advertising (jobs, notices, adverts) and lucrative publishing (how many updates, newsletters or annual reports are not on full colour gloss), who with one eye on their very own balance sheet won’t pick personal economics over national economics every time?
    Liam McGarry, McGarryConsult opinion on Barnett Report

    The limited insight I have into the world of the NI political hack has given me few ideas on how their obsession with towing the NIO thought-stream has come about. In the Belfast Telegraph’s case it is generally assumed they wish to keep a tight hold of civil servant job adverts and the like, when in reality they are an expensive luxury that is already accommodated by catering to the two tribes’ News Letter and Irish News.

    The local BBC, who have come under scrutiny recently from all sides for their handling of the Adams scandal vis-à-vis “Irisgate” (maybe it’s the rotten secular core speaking here, but was it really that big a deal?) – and that’s not counting the rumours circulating regarding a politically imposed blackout on Beeb reporters going after Adams stories – are in a similar position. But they don’t get advertising so apart from ‘for the cause’, what gives? I’ll repeat the most prescient line above for effect:

    with many hacks looking towards the future (Newspaper industry trends v potential lucrative govt press officer post plus pension) who will stick their head above the parapet?

    In the cosy world of local politics/media, it doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to agree with this thinking. Even those allegedly impartial observers are funded by the taxpayer, as well as more forthright abominations. It is difficult to ascertain who is on the take and who is ‘republican or otherwise, has his or her part to play’.

    What is certain is no matter how much faux lamenting our hacks do over that predictably drawn out charade at Hillsborough, they themselves have just as much to prove as the politicians to the Northern Irish public.

    Filed under: devolution, power sharing, Robinson affair

    A UUP playbook on P&J…

    [From Bobballs]

    There’s a lot of back and forward within the UUP on whether they should back the DUP’s deal on devolving Policing and Justice. I’m going to play devil’s advocate and offer a few reasons why the UUP needs to suck it up and support their bitter rivals.

    The UUP have got great leverage
    This is still a negotiation and the UUP have a strong hand to play. The government are putting enormous pressure on all parties to deliver – the UUP can translate this into genuine leverage. What side deal could the UUP extract from the government for signing up? Could they find a big win (eg on PPWs; pensions for security force personnel; FTR?) and make it part of their election campaign?

    Quid pro quo 
    Peter Robinson may need some cover from the UUP, but they will need some cover from him. The UUP have not been involved in negotiations to date – they must make their support conditional. The UUP can ask the DUP to sign a memorandum of understanding on P&J negotiations (ie. a simple set of written guarantees). This could be published if necessary to show the conditions under which support was given. This would remove a major obstacle for the UUP and protect their position in the longer term.

    It will be more uncomfortable for the DUP to be pushed over the line
    Willie McCrea and the rest of the 12 Angry Men would surely go bananas (see Willie’s contribution to the Crisis in the Executive debate last night. Strong stuff). For the DUP to go for P&J is to commit a policy u-turn.* A somersault of this kind would cause more internal turmoil and division in the DUP, which in turns leads to loss of trust among DUP support. This not only assists the UUP but it also helps the TUV eat into DUP core support.

    Don’t let the DUP pass the buck
    If devolution falls, and the DUP do not sign up to P&J, they can blame the Provos and the UUP for screwing it all up. That sort of rhetoric goes down well with DUP supporters. The better play for the UUP is to let P&J happen and block all the exits.

    It’s more awkward for the DUP to stay the course, commit the P&J u-turn, feel the pressure of managing the misfiring Executive, managing deteriorating SF / NIO relationships, managing their internal politics (12 Angry Men – hi guys!), AND manage the numerous, er, personal matters being (or soon to be) discussed in the media.

    With devolution still operating, the comparison between the UUP and DUP is stark. Without devolution, everyone looks and sounds the same. The UUP are in a much stronger position for the election with P&J (and devolution) in place than if they do t’other and opt for the ‘never, never, never, never’ routine.

    The longer the DUP stay in power, the less and less they look like a party of government. The UUP should give Peter what he wants and just go for it. Wholeheartedly, go for it.

    *NB. The DUP are already breaching a policy priority. Their policy priorities doc says that ‘Policing and Justice powers will only be transferred to Stormont on DUP terms, when the DUP decides, and after all our conditions have been met’. Well, no. The DUP leader says the when is now up to the UUP.

    Filed under: devolution, DUP, power sharing, Robinson affair, unionist unity?

    Retrofitting reality onto the ‘All-Island Economy’TM

    By St Etienne

    This post from the Partial Reporter reminded me of a bit of fact finding dug up towards the end of last year, and provides a welcome distraction from the current media sideshow on matters less important:

    – £2.68m: Total amount spent by InvestNI on all-island bodies & events in 2008
    – £1.16m: Total amount spent by InvestNI on EU-wide trade missions & marketing in 2008
    – $282m: GDP of Republic of Ireland
    – $18.39trillion: GDP of the EU
    Invest NI spend source: Freedom of Information Act Request

    The Republic of Ireland presents us with a market of 4.4 million people. The EU single market means access to 440 million. Who would an economist spend more on attracting?

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Filed under: finances, power sharing

    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

    In Defence of Power Sharing

    Well as a very wet-behind-the-ears new blogger here at OpenUnionism, I was given advance notice a few weeks ago that our opening topic on this here blog was going to be ‘aspirations for the new Assembly’. So I’d been trying to collect my thoughts on what I thought was ‘Assembly aspirations’ stuff – things like devolution of policing & justice, finding an alternative to the cruel and ruthless ‘academic selection’ education system which consigns so many children to less than the best from the age of 11 through no fault of their own, and how the Executive can best protect Northern Ireland’s working families from harsh UK-wide public spending cuts …

    Loads of big issues for the NI Executive to tackle – but also little to nothing by way of consensus between the major parties on such ‘big’ issues. Perhaps this is why First Minister Peter Robinson felt it advantageous to distract everybody’s attention by proposing nothing less than the abolition of the cross-community power-sharing mechanisms agreed upon in the 1998 Agreement. Nothing like starting a good aul’ traditional bunfight when the emperor needs new clothes.

    Robinson proposes to rewrite the Agreement by replacing cross-community power-sharing with a new mechanism whereby the support of 65% of MLAs would be enough to form a government or pass legislation. This would put an end to the principle of power-sharing set out in the 1998 Agreement, which says that the NI Executive must have the support of a majority of both Nationalist and Unionist MLAs to function.

    65% seems like a rather arbitrary figure, so let’s have a look at what such a threshold might mean if it were applied to the current Assembly:

    With a 65% threshold 71 MLAs would be needed to form an Executive or pass legislation. Unionists currently hold 55 of 108 Assembly seats (about 51%) whereas Nationalists hold 44 seats (about 41%). There are 9 MLAs designated as neither nationalist nor unionist.

    So with a 65% threshold, if all the ‘other’ MLAs sided with the nationalist parties, an Executive could conceivably be formed with the support of as few as 18 of 55 unionist MLAs (roughly 33%). Under the 65% formula you could have an Executive which 2 out of every 3 unionists in Northern Ireland were opposed to. (I can’t remember the DUPs calling for this back in 2003…)

    Even worse, with a 65% threshold, an Executive could be formed with the support of just 7 of the 44 nationalist MLAs (15.9%) – fewer than one in six!

    Does anyone out there seriously think that an Executive opposed by 84% of Nationalists, or by 67% of Unionists, could maintain the kind of cross-community legitimacy any Northern Ireland government needs?

    As a unionist, I disagree with SF on loads of issues, but I don’t think they’re being unreasonable in seeing Robinson’s proposal as being basically aimed at excluding them from the Executive. In 2007, 63.3% of nationalist voters supported Sinn Fein over the SDLP – how can it possibly be in the long-term interest of Northern Ireland or Unionism to exclude the representatives of 63.3% of nationalist voters from the devolved government?

    For the NI Executive to maintain cross-community legitimacy, the principle of 50% MLA support from each community must be maintained. This is certainly not to say that the current system of power-sharing is perfect. The “everybody in government, nobody in opposition” model is totally crap deeply flawed. Room must be opened up for a proper Assembly opposition. You can’t expect good governance in politics without competition.

    So lets have reform. Lets get rid of ‘everybody in government’. Lets create space for a constitutional opposition in the Assembly. Lets ensure that the opposition parties are appropriately resourced, as they are in Cardiff, Dublin, Edinburgh and Westminster. Lets stipulate that the Executive gets formed by the largest party from each community – at present this would be DUP & SF – in the future it could be DUP & SDLP, or UCUNF & SF,  or UCUNF & SDLP, or indeed new parties yet to come….

    But Unionists would be wise to strongly defend and maintain power-sharing – which protects Unionists as much as it does Nationalists. The NI Executive and Assembly are the cornerstones of Northern Ireland’s future within the United Kingdom. And it’s the power-sharing principle which underpins the legitimacy of the Executive and Assembly among both sides of Northern Ireland’s community.

    Power-sharing underpins the legitimacy of the institutions which underpin the Union. Unionists who attack power-sharing are undermining the legitimacy of the institutions which underpin the Union – same aul’ unionism shooting itself in the same aul’ foot…

    Filed under: power sharing

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