Category Archives: Politics

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?

Will take more than quick fix to save UK

I will return in due course to the main reason I think Scots should vote “no” next month – the confusion over currency outlined by Alistair Darling last week.

However, the offer by all three UK party leaders to offer further income tax powers to Scotland in the event of a ‘no’ vote will inevitably backfire. It is an example of the crux of Alex Salmond’s argument – Scotland should not be governed by an out-of-touch English millionaire elite.

It seems that yet again the plan to save the UK consists of the English giving more powers to the troublesome Celts and then hoping they’ll stop being so troublesome. That didn’t work 15 years ago – as evidenced by the very fact this referendum is happening – so why would it work now?

The UK is broken. It’ll take more than offering Scots something they would have under independence anyway to stop them, er, voting for independence! Tax was never the issue to start with – Mr Salmond has barely mentioned it and he has never used the powers he has anyway. Indeed it is a peculiarly Westminster bubble thing to focus on tax, rather than broader quality of life issues as Mr Salmond skilfully has.

By the way, what happens if the Scots use their new tax powers to the disadvantage of the already much poorer north of England? How will the northern English feel about the Union then?! The fact even Ed Milliband hasn’t thought of that shows just how much a member of the English millionaire elite he is – and one completely lacking in real vision or ideas. That is seriously problematic for countless reasons.

It is alarming on so many levels that no one in that Westminster bubble is even close to recognising the problem (never mind producing a solution). If the UK is something we cherish – and that’s a big ‘if’ – then a fundamental realignment is needed. This would look something like the federal set-up suggested by Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser. But the very fact no one in London is even in the same book, far less the same page, shows how hopeless the case has become.

The Scots will vote ‘no’ next month – but not least because they know they’ll get a second chance soon enough. Meanwhile the English Millionaire Elite, fully incorporating Ed Milliband, is proving itself totally out of touch – and not just with Scotland…

Progressives also need to learn to accept democracy

It is an obvious thing that for too long some Irish Republicans rejected democracy by pretending Northern Ireland could be bombed into a United Ireland without its people’s consent; and recently we have seen attacks on Alliance Party offices and general disturbances endorsed by Unionists on the basis of a democratic decision taken in line with long-established policy in an elected chamber. As I wrote on here, both Nationalists and Uniomists continue to have difficulty with even the basics of representative democracy – which involves acceptance even of decisions and laws you don’t like, and standing up for the application of those decisions and laws even when you oppose them. That’s how it works.

I’d love to say Northern Ireland’s third “pillar”, what I term “Progressives” (others prefer “liberals”), were absolutely committed to democracy. However, they too have an unfortunate record of attempting to work around the fact the voters chose the wrong people, rather than working together to provide a seriously electable alternative. They need to understand and focus on the fact that democracy is never going to work until people understand the direct link between those they elect and those who govern – something which is a relative innovation in Northern Ireland.

Last week, for example, some Progressives gratuitously attacked Alliance Leader David Ford after he opposed the NI Executive’s spending settlement as a “sectarian carve-up”. They suggested he should “do something”, as he is himself in that Executive. When asked precisely what he should do, few answers were forthcoming beyond perhaps bringing the institutions down. Let’s follow that logic – because the two parties which command a majority in the Assembly have agreed a spending settlement Progressives don’t like, Progressives should simply bring down the institutions?

Let us again be clear about what some people are suggesting here: a majority of a freely elected democratic Assembly take a decision, so a minority of the minority should bring the whole thing down because they don’t like that decision! Let us then be clear, this is the same logic used by flag protesters or even by Republican terrorists – “We are right, everyone else is wrong even though we’re a minority, therefore we get to act as wreckers”. This is the absolute opposite of democracy. It is frankly shameful that any democrat would suggest such a thing.

Too many Progressives still struggle with the basic problem that they are a small minority – I say that as a member of that minority! At election after election, when the religious zealots of the DUP and the terrorist apologist crypto-Marxists of Sinn Féin emerge on top, we hear the same old reaction from Progressives, along the lines that there is really a mass of Progressives out there who for some reason aren’t voting and therefore we effectively get to ignore the election result. We don’t!

We must respect the mandate of those who were elected, and respect their right to carry out and even block policies which they are mandated by the people to carry out and block. That applies even if they were elected to carry out a sectarian carve-up and deliver a vision of Northern Ireland completely at odds from ours. For as long as they are doing it by the ballot not the bullet, you know what? That’s democracy, folks!

Belfast “most tolerant city in UK”

A survey by the Office of National Statistics (contributing to an EU-wide project interviewing 41,000 people in 79 cities) recently saw 75% of those questioned in Belfast agree with the premise “The presence of foreigners is good for my city”. It was the only UK city to score higher then the EU average (the others surveyed were London, Glasgow, Cardiff, Manchester and Newcastle).

A freak result, surely? After all, there was another round of disgraceful bigoted attacks only last week.

Well, that is possible but statistically unlikely. So why this seemingly bizarre outcome?

Firstly, the media are right to highlight hate crimes, which happen all too frequently in Belfast. Yet could it be that it is carried out by a minority not only increasingly desperate to oppose social change but also subconsciously aware of their minority status as they do so?

Secondly, as a legacy of sectarian conflict, Belfast arguably has a higher tolerance of hate crime than it really should have. There is still likely to be more support/protection for those who do it than elsewhere; but that does not put in doubt for one second the fact that the vast, vast majority in every part of the city oppose it.

Thirdly, the media don’t report the good side – good news doesn’t sell after all. They don’t report the Ukrainian delayed on a ferry and thus unable to access his home who was immediately offered an overnight stay at the home of a fellow passenger; they don’t report the queue at the city centre bus stop who agreed that a new Polish immigrant had such a convoluted route home to his new residence that they just pooled together on the spot and paid a taxi fare for him; they actually scarcely mentioned the selection of (by citizenship) Indian, Polish, Lithuanian, Spanish and Australian candidates for election recently.

Fourthly, and I accept this is controversial argument, there is an argument that the Troubles prove we are a pretty tolerant lot. Where similar ethno-religio-national clashes have resulted in the complete removal or even extermination of one side (compare us, for example to Yugoslavia), ours actually saw the maintenance of at least the basics of public administration, application of the Law and local elected representation.

Finally, there is also an argument that Belfast is a blunter place than most. Just because other societies are not open about intolerant (or frankly racist, xenophobic or homophobic) views, does not mean those views are not held. There is an argument at least for saying that putting such views out there actually demonstrates the need to discuss and tackle them – something which may in fact make us generally more tolerant, not less so. (“Tolerant” is not a great word here, by the way, but that’s probably for another blog piece!)

Over to you, dear readers – what say you?

Why the lack of outrage re thousands dead in Syria, Iraq, Sudan, etc?

I should probably have a specific tag for posts which pose questions to which I am not sure of the answer and want readers’ help. This is one such.

As the death toll passes 1500, I continue to be disturbed at the lack of basic humanity shown by those who think Israel’s current actions are anything other than grossly disproportionate and counter-productive. Even the United States is beginning to accept that reality now, even though it has not yet acted upon it.

However, 1500 is the number killed daily by Assad, or by ISIS in Iraq and parts of Syria. That is also the number killed in South Sudan after a government (sectarian) crisis broke out there a year ago, where there is now a humanitarian crisis of the scale of the Irish famine. This is to say nothing of the 1500 killed (one fifth on a civil airliner) during Russia’s war games in Eastern Ukraine, nor indeed of the appalling Ebola outbreak in West Africa. So why all the concern about Gaza, and not about these and other horrors ongoing elsewhere?

Let us leave aside for the moment the fact that the West in complicit in the partition of Sudan which entirely predictably was going to lead to sectarian violence. Several reasons have been suggested: Israel/Palestine is longer standing; it is a clear case of two sides (goodies versus baddies); where we stand on Israel/Palestine is also a self-definition (say, of Unionist/Nationalist or Right/Left); there is a direct religious interest in the Holy Land; there is a moral imperative after the Holocaust; there is a highly economically relevant Jewish diaspora in the United States; and others. All of these strike me as likely parts of the story. In this particular case, that the average age in Gaza is 17 surely also has something to do with it.

I cannot help but think, however, that another reason is that Israel is a Western country. By falling over themselves to try to argue that we in the West cared more about people killed on MH17 than people killed in Gaza, some commentators rather embarrassed themselves by missing the obvious point – that they themselves don’t seem to care about people killed or displaced in Syria, Iraq or South Sudan. Actually it rather seems to me that we do not omit to mention non-Westerners who were killed, but rather people who weren’t killed by Westerners (and Israelis count as Westerners).

I wonder also if there is even a collective guilt in the West. We all – every one of us – accept basically a global system policed predominantly by the United States (in preference, say, to Russia or China). Because of economic, geo-political and even internal concerns, the United States finds Israel a useful ally. Thus when Israel – seen almost as a proxy for the country we are happy to police the world at least to an extend – carries out a set of appalling and counter-productive atrocities, we look on powerless knowing that we endorse the system which brings such things about. After all, it’s easy to boycott Israel, but try boycotting the United States…

In Syria, Iraq and South Sudan, we in the West don’t believe we are participating so long as people are killing each other – even if, for example, Syria’s Assad kills more Palestinians than the IDF (which is the case, of course); or if more Christians are displaced than Muslims (“Wait, there are Christians in the Middle East?!”)

In other words, I don’t know the answer. But I do know there is a hell of a lot of hypocrisy about on the subject. Almost no one really believes every human life is equal – as is illustrated by our selective reaction to all these horrors.

 

Belfast Pride needs proper status

Honestly, going on parades of any kind just isn’t my thing – in the same way rock concerts or road racing aren’t. However, the Twelfth is clearly a significant event and television coverage reflects this; events such as Tennents Vital are well trailed; and the just past North West 200 and upcoming Ulster GP are given appropriate “major event” status by the Tourist Board.

This weekend another well-established and huge gathering takes place in Northern Ireland – a day of fun and frolics to be attended by thousands. Indeed, there is potential in future for it to grow, one year, into Europe’s showpiece event in a not dissimilar way to the MTV Awards or Giro Grande Partenza. I speak, of course, of Belfast Pride.

Much is made of this politically, and rightly so; but much could also be made of it socially and economically. It attracts people to Belfast. It brings people into shops, leisure facilities and cafés they would not otherwise frequent. Hotels can be booked out. In short, it is a significant boost to the city centre and its traders.

So you are left to wonder – why no “major event” status? Why so little trailing well in advance by the mainstream? I trust an evening’s coverage is being planned by BBC NI as I write? I ask these questions genuinely – but they do need answers. I wouldn’t like to think a Pride event would not be treated even-handedly…

Nationalists in NI must recognise need for institutional reform

Mandatory coalitions can actually work. There’s been one in Switzerland of the same four parties since 1959, in effect. However, Northern Ireland’s doesn’t work – it is time for Nationalists to face that obvious truth.

Northern Ireland’s system delivers a modicum of stability – but it is an expensive stability which delivers nothing but gridlock.

Ministers who breach the Ministerial Code – say, by endorsing terrorism or racism – are left in office. Issues such as educational or welfare reform are left untouched at huge expense. What Sir Humphrey once described as ‘organisational atrophy and administrative paralysis’ has become the ingrained norm.

There is a serious long-term penalty for this. As the institutions increasingly look like the utter facade they actually are, people justifiably give up on them – either by electing to them communal mouthpieces or not voting at all in the immediate term, but more worryingly by losing general faith in democracy in the long run. The opposite of democracy is chaos – chaos in which, in NI more than most places, gangsters and terrorists are only too happy to roam.

Thus, it is simply not good enough for Nationalists to endorse the pathetic status quo. There is no rational reason not to support, or at least engage with, Alliance proposals at least. As it happens, looked at objectively, there are some perfectly reasonable Unionist proposals out there too. It is time for progress and reform.

In 1998 we opted for democracy over terror. Now it’s time we made that democracy work.

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