Northern Ireland vastly better than 20 years ago

One correspondent joked that I should be “more definite” in my blog pieces, so here’s another one: the notion that Northern Ireland isn’t multi-fold better (and more cohesive) than it was 20 years ago is complete drivel!

In the Northern Ireland of 20 years ago, with freakish exceptions, you never saw a different coloured face and you never heard a foreign language. No one wanted to come and live here; actually, no one wanted to come and holiday here. You did see plenty of army (and other) checkpoints; you did take ages crossing the border; you did face restrictions to where you went and when. And murders were more common than road fatalities are now.

Host a major music awards ceremony, or the start of a Great Cycling Tour, or a major golf championship? The notion would have had you in hospital laughing! This is a better country.

Promote an Irish language job freely in East Antrim, or park a car with a ‘GB’ sticker in Andersonstown, stroll into a political event in the Felons Club to mention your dad was in the Army in open discussion? That would have been cause for genuine concern. This is a more cohesive country.

The Troubles. What were the Troubles? People who will soon be driving and voting actually ask that. My 11-year-old stepdaughter condemned sectarian slaughter in Iraq on the grounds that “I mean, we have Protestants and Catholics but we don’t go around doing that”. To grow up in, this is pretty much a normal country!

Find the second highest and fastest growing identity here is “Northern Irish”? You know what, this is actually a country!

I suspect those who forget the obvious, vast advances are those who were anticipating something different. The notion of “peace” had perhaps always been of a “peace” solely on our own terms. We find one which is a mushy compromise a bit disconcerting – yet it is the only one available. And it is one which has improved things so immeasurably, that sometimes we forget to try measuring.

Is it imperfect? Look around the world and tell me somewhere that isn’t.

Why is predicting next UK General Election so difficult?

The polls are increasingly suggesting a Labour majority at the next UK General Election. However, here is the thing – never in the history of polling have polls been a less reliable indicator of the outcome. The truth it is phenomenally difficult to predict the next UK General Election. It is worth specifying why this is so.

Firstly, historically, it used to be relatively straightforward because the two main groups – Conservative-Unionist-NatLib on the centre right and Labour on the centre left – scored over 90% of the vote between them. It was relatively easy to take the spread of seats from the last election, calculate the “swing” in favour of one group or the other, and then apply that consistently across the seats to work out roughly how that translated into seats. Even this wasn’t perfect – as long ago as 1959, the first properly televised UK General Election, the swing was away from Labour in most places, but to Labour in Scotland and Lancashire (which was noted at the time and taken account of in calculations).

Secondly, it is now the case that even in a good year for the three main parties collectively, an eighth of votes cast in Great Britain are against them. With the growth of UKIP, this figure will only increase. That figure is not enough for any other party to win a seat except if it specifically targets one (e.g. the Greens in Brighton Pavilion), but it does make it hard to predict which of the three parties they are taking their votes from, and thus to predict a winner. Put another way, if the race is to 45-50% between two or three candidates, it is fairly easy to predict a winner from some basic polling; if the race is to 30-35% with up to 20% of votes cast constituting effectively a protest, it all becomes a lot closer. There aren’t, in fact, many three-way marginals, but it becomes quite possible that those that there are (e.g. Watford) will be won at under 30%. Predicting that reliably, even from accurate regional polling figures, is nigh impossible.

Thirdly, the loss of some parties’ votes may be more marked in some areas than others, and the scale of that difference may be difficult to pick up. For example, we can reasonably guess three things: a) the Liberal Democrat vote will decrease; b) it will decrease more in seats where they do not have an incumbent MP (and more so where than incumbent him/herself is not defending the seat than where he/she is); c) it will decrease more in regions which are not traditionally Liberal than in areas which always had a Liberal strain (e.g. the rural South West or the Scottish Highlands). All of this means that even if the Liberal Democrats lost more than half their vote, crashing to 8-12%, they could still retain more than half their seats (but it would be hard to predict which)… or not…

Fourthly, tactical voting is hard to call. In 1983, the Conservative vote share declined but their majority trebled because of a shift in votes from Labour to the then Liberal/SDP Alliance, which was rarely enough to elect a Liberal/SDP MP but often unseated the Labour one, leaving the Conservative elected thanks to the split. In 1997, however, voters essentially voted for whichever party was most likely to unseat the Conservative, giving the Liberal Democrats double the seats despite an unchanged vote share (the Conservatives only actually lost a quarter of their vote share, but more than half their seats).

After all this, the likelihood is that of all the votes cast for the three main parties, the Conservatives will probably have roughly the same share as in 2010 (maybe slightly more in fact), and Labour will have considerably more at the expense of the Liberal Democrats (although exactly how this works out will depend on region and who holds the seat). This would see the Conservatives lose some seats to Labour (as former Liberal Democrats lend their votes to the Labour candidate in Conservative/Labour marginals), but actually gain some from the Liberal Democrats (as Labour pick up Liberal Democrat votes allowing the Conservative to sneak through). Quite how many of each would happen is uncertain, as is the precise effect of a likely upturn in the UKIP vote (often Conservative, but often also Labour or just protest) and even the Green vote (an obvious destination for disaffected SDP-leaning former Liberal Democrats). In the end, there will be a fair degree of luck in simply just how the votes fall. It’ll be some election night!


Currency symptom of Salmond’s problem, not the cause

Despite what seemed to me to be a comprehensive “victory” on Monday evening, Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond appears still to be losing ground at the very time he needs to be gaining it because, it is suggested, he cannot come up with a “Plan B” on the currency an independent Scotland would use if the Continuing UK refused to enter into a formal Currency Union. Yet in fact I think the “currency issue” is the symptom of his basic problem, not the cause.

Firstly, it is worth being clear about what the “currency issue” is. Mr Salmond claims that an independent Scotland will enter into a formal Currency Union with the Continuing UK – a Sterling Zone, effectively, with a single central bank, interest rate and so on with influence on decisions affecting it from both countries. All three main UK parties have said, however, that they will not allow this. The obvious “Plan B” would be for Scotland to have its own currency pegged to Sterling, the same way Denmark’s is pegged to the euro (as Mr Salmond pointed out, although it would probably be called the pound and pegged at 1:1, thus in practice similar, as Mr Darling has said, to countries such as Panama which simply use the US Dollar). Economically this “Plan B” has a certain appeal, as having a no bank of last resort (the inevitable consequence) means banks have to be more careful – as has indeed proved to be the case in Denmark and Panama. However, politically, it is a disaster because it means the Continuing UK would make decisions affecting Scotland’s currency without Scottish input – an unsellable proposition to undecided voters as it hints at loss of control rather than gain.

My own view is that Mr Salmond is being skewered over the Currency Union not because of its potential economic ramifications but because it demonstrates a more obvious (and potentially unpalatable) point – if Scotland is independent and gets to make decisions in its own interest, well, so is the Continuing UK…

In other words, what is alarming people about Mr Salmond’s proposals is that it is becoming increasingly apparent that “independence” works both ways. If Scotland gets to act entirely in its own interests, so do its neighbours. Given Scotland’s peripheral location, unfavourable demographics and small population, undecided voters are increasingly reaching the conclusion that this works to Scotland’s disadvantage. To make matters worse, it would be Scotland which unilaterally departed, thus leaving the Continuing UK with all the benefits of being the successor state (not least full control of Sterling).

By insisting that his campaign is about having decisions affecting Scotland made in Scotland, but then also insisting that he knows and can influence decisions affecting England which will be made in England, Mr Salmond is beginning to look somewhat disingenuous. It is that, not the currency, which is the crux of his current difficulty.

NI Corporation Tax reduction can’t happen

I was astounded to see media reports suggesting the UK Prime Minister is about to reduce Corporation Tax in Northern Ireland. This shows a basic misunderstanding of devolution – and of politics.

The UK Government has never claimed to have the power to reduce Corporation Tax in Northern Ireland. What is being considered is the devolution of Corporation Tax to the Northern Ireland Assembly. It would be for the Northern Ireland Assembly (Executive, in practice) to reduce Corporation Tax, not the UK Government.

This is important because, of course, that couldn’t possibly currently happen. For all their talk of lower business taxes (DUP) and all-island tax harmonisation (SF), the fact is the DUP and SF have brought the Executive to the brink of collapse over immediate spending reductions (necessitated by maintaining the current broken Welfare system) and ongoing real-terms spending reductions (necessitated by the UK Government’s determination to reduce the deficit). The idea that they would double this burden by adding hundreds of millions to the “savings” already having to be made to take a punt on the long-term benefits of a Corporation Tax reduction is laughable. Reduction of Corporation Tax, even if it were devolved, would merely go into the pot with all the other issues upon which the DUP and Sinn Féin are gridlocked – from the single education authority to the Maze.

A Corporation Tax reduction can’t and won’t happen any time soon. Don’t trust anyone telling you otherwise.

Time for Sinn Féin to “show leadership”

When Unionists of various stripes have been caught breaching the basics of the 1998 and 2006 Agreements and even engaging in hate speech, Sinn Féin has strolled up to the parapet of the moral high ground and demanded that the DUP and others “show leadership”.

I am not one for “whataboutery”, but I’m not one for hypocrisy either. So, after the appalling example of hate speech exhibited by a band at the Ardoyne Fleadh (cheered, note, by hundreds present), we are entitled to suggest that perhaps now is the time for “Ireland’s largest party” to, well, “show leadership”…

Let us be clear, the band was cheered because it expressed a sentiment hundreds of thousands of people in Ireland share – that the “British” have no right in any part of Ireland, that Unionists and other non-Nationalists aren’t really “British”, and that therefore there is no place for “Britishness” at all in contemporary Ireland. These sentiments are utterly unacceptable – partly because they simply are given the reality of contemporary Ireland, and partly because we all signed up to binning them in 1998. That includes Sinn Féin.

I have ranted ad nauseam about how the 1998 and 2006 Agreements – and, more importantly, basic common decency – require Unionists to come to terms with the Irish national identity and citizenship held and cherished by many of their co-citizens in Northern Ireland. However, that absolutely works both ways. Required also by those Agreements is respect for British national identity and citizenship, and also for the constitutional position of Northern Ireland within the UK. It is understandable that people who grew up fundamentally opposed to Britishness and all it stood for and believing that the constitutional position is the result of a terrible historical injustice would have difficulty with this, which is precisely why it requires those who signed up to it while recognising the need to compromise to “show leadership”.

What happened at the Belfast Mela, at the Cenotaph commemoration of the outbreak of World War One, and at Belfast City Hall’s Peace Vigil was a recognition of our different national identities but also of our common citizenship. What happened at the Ardoyne Fleadh was a disgraceful hate-filled rant which has no place in post-Agreement Northern Ireland, and which should probably be prosecuted for incitement to further hatred.  Let’s hear Sinn Féin say so – no ifs, no buts.

Branding: people don’t believe you, even if it’s true

The new Audi A4 “compact executive” saloon is due out early next year. Already the blurbs are appearing in the car magazines about how it will have a “drastically improved driving experience” aimed at “seizing the BMW 3-series’ crown” as “best car to drive” in the class.

I have to wonder at Audi’s PR team. Why would they allow such a thing to be written in advance of the launch of the model? Why are they prioritising “driving experience” when its main rival has been accepted as the “ultimate driving machine” for at least two decades (i.e. as long as the typical target buyer has been driving)? Because here is the thing: even if Audi were to produce a model which was clearly a better drive than the BMW equivalent, no one would believe it!

This is the power of branding – it builds on a perception which once had justification, but which is maintained in the public’s view long after it is objectively valid. Thus BMW is the “ultimate driving machine” even though other makes do better in sports and touring car racing; Volvo is the “safe” option even though in fact Renault was the first make to have a five-star Euro NCAP rating; Toyota is rock solid reliable even though it has had more recalls globally in the last five years than anyone.

Audi has enjoyed phenomenal success – outside North America at least – with its strategy of using only four basic manufacturing points to build over 50 different models. In other words, there are fundamentally only four Audi models, but they are reshaped, redesigned and re-powered into a vast combination, allowing almost anyone to find an Audi that suits while maintaining the “premium” brand. It’s brilliant. But trust me, no one will ever believe they are better to drive than the equivalent BMW – even if some of them are…

A “United Ireland” won’t happen. Ever.

I am pleased to see, over on Slugger, at least the hint of a real debate about a “United Ireland”. Most of the basic sentiments – that we need some economic reality and that Northern Ireland has to work for all its citizens – are spot on and conveniently are necessary to any constitutional preference. This is why my own politics were always based on those sentiments.

I have put forward various thoughts on how a United Ireland could operate – most obviously, like Australia (a federation with the current Monarch as Head of State). However, I have done so primarily to demonstrate that “Nationalists” are either so biased that they find this unacceptable, or so disinterested that they find this irrelevant. It is no surprise to me that the only threat to the UK comes from Scotland, not Northern Ireland.

The truth is this: a Unitied Ireland is not going to happen.

Why not? Let us go back to the Covenant. One of the main aspects of that document in September 1912 was the economic argument that splitting Belfast – its shipbuilders, rope makers, linen weavers and so on – from the rest of the UK would see tariffs imposed and thus create costs to exporting to the UK which would render them unable to compete with the West of Scotland and the North West of England in those key industrial areas. The point here is that in an era where there were tariffs imposed on trade between any two countries, it made sense to belong to a large country. There were two prime reasons for this: first, it gave you the biggest possible free trading zone; and second, it gave you the clout of a powerful government to negotiate trade deals with other large countries on your behalf. That is why the map of Europe at the outbreak of World War One consisted of a unitary British Isles, a larger single Germany, a huge Austro-Hungarian realm, a newly united Italy and large Russian and Ottoman Empires – alongside France. Spain and not much else (even Sweden and Norway had broken apart only in the previous decade).

A century later and we live in a vastly different Europe, where tariffs and many other trade restrictions between countries have been abolished. This makes it no longer necessary or even beneficial to belong to a large country. With the benefit of free trade, countries such as France and Germany are the exception in Europe – which contains a raft of countries at around 7-11 million (Belgium, Portugal, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic. Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, Sweden etc), another set at around 4-5 million (Ireland, Denmark, Norway, Finland. Slovakia, Croatia etc) and another lot at around 2 million (Slovenia, Latvia and Estonia). This is vastly different from what went before, but it is enabled by free and peaceful trade, and thus the pressure is for more break-up – perhaps in Catalonia, Venice or Scotland to give some obvious examples. After all, if Brussels is already handling everything from foreign trade to social regulations; and you are already handling domestic policies and laws, what role precisely do Madrid, Rome or London play?

Therefore it is no coincidence that, aside from Germany, there really is no precedent for uniting a country in modern Europe – the movement is all the other way.

Germany itself is not a useful precedent either. It consisted, legally and practically, of the dissolution of the German Democratic Republic (what the English-speaking world but not the German-speaking world referred to as “East Germany”) and the expansion of the Federal Republic of Germany (“West Germany”) to incorporate its territory. The equivalent would be the dissolution of Northern Ireland and the expansion of the current Republic of Ireland to include 32 counties not 26. Overnight, the Northern (NHS-style) Health system would be abolished, its laws would be replaced (e.g. the Rules of the Road would change) or repealed (e.g. laws on equality or animal cruelty, which are often markedly lacking in the Republic), and rafts of people would be out of work (most civil servants would be unnecessary; all lawyers now unqualified; and so on). This would be much more dramatic in fact than it was in Germany, where some “Eastern” systems were maintained by the new States (in their own policies and laws; unlike Ireland, Germany is a federation) and “Easterners” gladly underwent training in new “Western” systems accepting from the outset that they were inherently better. This is why no one seriously advocates such a method of unification for Ireland.

So there is no precedent. In fact, most Nationalists who think about it come to suggest that Northern Ireland would continue to exist, with its own separate laws, education system, accounting methods and so on. But that takes us back to the above question – if Belfast continues to manage the domestic policies and laws, and Brussels does the foreign stuff, what exactly would Dublin be doing? The answer to that, hypothetically, is it would be working out what to do with its new security headache and how it was to manage a mammoth subvention to Northern Ireland – a subvention to a place with half the population but the same number of public servants, for some reason. Hypothetically… it wouldn’t be daft enough to do it in reality, of course.

Even without that headache, the simple fact is the “United Ireland” thus created would consist of a legally separate unit, with its own laws, institutions, heritage and identities. That has been tried, of course – in 1707, when the Kingdom of Scotland was united with the Kingdom of England. How’s that one working out in the modern context explained above?!

So no, a United Ireland is not “closer than it’s ever been”. There was one chance of it ever happening outside the UK, and it was wasted at Easter 1916. Towards 2016, all the trends across Europe tell us there was more chance of a sovereign Northern Ireland than a sovereign United Ireland some time this century. What was that about making Northern Ireland economically viable and a fair home to all, Irish, British and neither…?!

Being “against austerity” is nonsense

I was linked in to a graph at the weekend showing another version of a point I have made for a long time on this blog. The graph noted that UK GDP is 16% lower than it would have been if 1990-2008 growth rates had been maintained during the 2008-13 period.

It reminded me of a phrase I see frequently – people claiming to be “against austerity”. This is nonsense to start with – all successful countries are austere; one man’s austerity is another man’s efficiency, after all. It is particularly ludicrous for those on the “left” to oppose austerity – the opposite of austerity is rampant consumerism inevitably dominated by a few big multi-nationals. Austerity is a good thing – indeed, it is absolutely necessary if we aspire to live in a country where people prioritise the interests of society as a whole and not just the crazed individualism which has seen the English-speaking world become ever more selfish, ever more unequal and ever more bust. You’d think those on the “left” would care about this, but apparently we should not seek to be austere and should just continue spending stacks of money we don’t have and never earned on things no one needs and few really want…

As it happens, austerity is also necessary when it turns out you are 16% worse off than you thought – for that is what the above figure really means. It is not our current economic position which is false; the false one was the 2008 one fuelled (particularly in the British Isles) by a mad property binge which was obviously unsustainable at the time only no one thought to admit it.

So you can’t be “against austerity” any more than you can be against the grass being green. It is time we stopped this completely false argument otherwise.

English civil liberties must be defended

Last week, while away on holiday, an innocent man had his property broken into and his personal belongings taken by the bag load. To make matters worse, this home invasion in Berkshire was filmed. It was filmed not by YouTube but by the mainstream media. And the perpetrators were not common burglars, but the police.

It is an utterly shocking breach of basic privacy rights. At the centre of it, needless to say, is the South Yorkshire Police – the same one now demonstrated to have acted so appallingly over the Hillsborough Disaster a generation ago. The home, of course, belonged to Sir Cliff Richard.

One of the great things, supposedly, about living under English Law or a system derived from it is that civil liberties are defended. Yet here we had a Judge clearly unaware of the basics of that Law allowing a break-in (for that is what it was) with no justification. Search warrants are issued for specific items likely to assist a prosecution, yet in this case no prosecution is even ongoing and the bags of items lifted indicate no specificity at all. When tipped off that this was about to happen, the media’s response was not to query it and challenge the police over yet another outrage, but to film it unquestioningly and run it as main item on the “impartial” national broadcaster’s news that evening.

Talk about heads rolling…

Reality of poverty: the left denies it, the right ignores it

I was on BBC Good Morning Ulster last week discussing figures which show that two thirds of people in Northern Ireland (a comfortably greater share than in Great Britain) have pay-TV services – i.e. extra subscription channels of various kinds.

This is odd, of course, because apparently over half the population (vastly more than in Great Britain) suffer ‘fuel poverty’, and indeed are ‘unable to heat their homes’.

This leaves a minimum of 15% of all households in Northern Ireland who are opting to pay for extra TV services (over and above the already existing multi-channel Freeview) but are at the same time unable to heat their homes…

Herein again we approach the problem of tackling poverty. The Left deny the problem – arguing essentially that only rich people have pay-TV. The Right ignore the problem – arguing that such figures, essentially, give them justification for doing so.

There are a few home truths, of course, which we don’t much like talking about. Firstly, it is simply not true that over half of households in Northern Ireland cannot afford to heat their homes (it is merely true that energy prices are a bit higher here and thus take up a higher proportion of household income – but then we pay lower domestic taxes and no extra water charge). Secondly, poverty rates are no higher in Northern Ireland than in Great Britain (surveys by the National Policy Institute consistently put them at about level, although the precise make-up of those on low income is different). Thirdly (as per the point I made on the programme which people struggle with but is demonstrably the case globally), people experiencing low income and/or social isolation use a decision-making process far different from the one middle-class people (including anti-poverty campaigners) would expect, including placing a far higher premium on home entertainment than other people do.

I gave an example from this book of a North African who only worked half the year, and even then for the bare minimum. He could not afford to clothe his family and they were to all intents and purposes malnourished, and yet they had a television. The same story is found across the world, from Latin American favelas to Indian farms. Televisions are deemed an ‘essential’ (when asked, owners usually say this is because they provide entertainment to pass the time and perhaps even a sense of broad social belonging), whereas shoes or even fruit aren’t. Move that to the Western World and you will find pay-TV given a premium over books, courses and such like – not a completely ludicrous choice, not least because (as was pointed out on the programme) pay-TV may be part of a cost-efficient bundle with other services (most obviously broadband).

What this tells us, as I argued last week, is that we spent far too long tossing around meaningless statistics, and far too little time really grasping the decision-making processes of those facing choices on low income. It is easy some of us to miss the very obvious point that motivations and even emotions are involved in those processes which many of us (particularly professional people with wide-ranging qualifications and reasonable incomes) have never experienced. It is too easy to try to understand people on low income or suffering social isolation through charts and graphs and even having great conferences and documentaries about them. I do wonder if we shouldn’t spend more time actually speaking to them?


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