EU (and Ireland) saving UK from itself

Lucid Talk poll caught people’s attention recently by being the first ever which indicated support in Northern Ireland for a “United Ireland”. Now, the poll was very specific – would people vote to remain in the EU via a United Ireland (implicitly, if that were the only way to do so as per the 1998 Agreement) in the event of a Hard Brexit. Nevertheless, the direction of travel is clear – the DUP’s ludicrous determination to “unite Unionism” is in fact being just as successful at “uniting non-Unionism” – a whopping 57% of “others” (who now account for 12-15% of the electorate – and the crucial balance at that) told the poll that they would prefer the EU over the UK.

After all if, as in the DUP’s world, the Unionist wife of a former RUC Chief Constable is “one of them”, that doesn’t leave too many of “us”…

It is interesting, therefore, that it is in fact the EU, with Ireland at the forefront, which is saving the UK from itself – and indeed that this is something that could not happen without the existence of Northern Ireland.

The UK, led of course by England and Wales, has embarked on a profoundly ideological act of lunacy, aimed not just at leaving the EU but at cutting itself off from the world entirely. The populist nativism of the most crazed Brexiteers should, in any rational country, have rebounded on them by now, because their base argument has been shown to be utterly wrong and they have thus committed the most outrageous U-turn. Their basic original argument was that “the EU need us more than we need them” (this was backed up neither by data nor common sense); having found out clearly that this is the obvious nonsense anyone rational already knew it to be, they then embarked on a strategy of “Just leave anyway”!

The truth, actually, is that (from a trade, research, security, geopolitical and every other point of view) the UK needs the EU whereas the EU merely wants the UK. Just because this is unpalatable to British nationalists does not make it untrue. Yet the latter point is important.

Because in fact the EU does want the UK – at least in some sort of partnership – it has embarked on a strategy which, while not without fault, has a perfectly laudable aim. Basically, the UK should go but the partnership should be maintained. In order to achieve this, there should first be a basic agreement of principles (even of the worst case scenario); there should then be a transition; and there should then be a sensible Trade Deal (actually, this would be better referred to as a “Partnership Agreement” as it will go well beyond trade – even the UK has already accepted it should, for example, include common aviation regulations).

So while the UK Government blunders on clueless, claiming it has impact assessments which have no impact and are not assessments for example, the EU is busy saving the partnership – because it does of course want one. Ireland has in fact played a key role (although it should be noted for the record that even it is considerably less reliant on trade with the UK than the UK is with the EU) in holding the line, almost literally, to ensure basic principles around the border – including broad ones around North-South cooperation and consequent alignment of regulations – are maintained come what may. Work back from there (as Fintan O’Toole notes, like Sherlock Holmes you start with the impossible and go with whatever is left) and you end up with the UK aligned to the EU in a range of ways which leave a partnership intact. That is what the EU will do.

Of course, when this is finished, we will be left to wonder what the point is of leaving in the first place…

 

 

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Why “Taoiseach” but not “Bundeskanzler”?

A question was raised in social media the other day, albeit slightly in jest, around why the media refer to the head of the Irish Government by his Irish language title “Taoiseach”, but to the head of the German Government by her English language title “Chancellor” (as opposed to “Bundeskanzlerin”, noting the additional feminine suffix -in).

In fact, the reason is simple. The Head of the Irish Government’s title even in English is “Taoiseach”. This is one example of the way in which the Irish language plays a symbolic (rather than a particularly communicative) role in Irish national life, and it is far from the only example. The police service is referred to even in English as An Garda Síochána, the planning authority as An Bord Pleanála, and so on. Most political parties maintain their Irish language name even in English. Part of this plays into the profound role the Irish language plays among those who do not in fact speak it but nevertheless regard themselves as holding an Irish national identity.

No such commonality exists between the German language and German national identity – not least because the vast majority of Germans speak German all the time anyway. In fact, if anything, the “cool” thing to do in German is to borrow an English language word (such as the word “cool” itself) or even entire phrase (though not always precisely – Germans say “last not least” and speak of “das Happy-End”, neither of which is quite right, but perhaps such things are “fifty-fifty”). There is thus no insistence that the title of the Head of Government must be in German, as long as it is a rough translation. (Germans do, out of interest, have a bizarre keenness for the all-compassing use of the prefix “Bundes-” meaning “Federal”, to the extent that the manager of the national football team even is referred to simply as the “Bundestrainer” – which would literally suggest he trains the entire federation, and not just its elite footballers!)

The distinction between “Chancellor” and “Prime Minister” is merely one of cultural reference, but it is notable that it is maintained in English. Similarly, the United States (and some other countries such as Argentina and Mexico, referred to in English) has a “Congress” whereas most other places have a “Parliament” – “Congress” implies specifically a legislature bringing together members from different parts of the federation meeting “in congress”, whereas “parliament” requires only members. Ireland, of course, splits its parliament into Dáil Éireann (with Teachtaí Dála or “TDs”) and Seanad Éireann, even in English.

There are some quirks here in the English-language references to other Heads of Government too, however. Whereas English translates “premier ministre” as “prime minister” and “Kanzler” as “chancellor”, it does not do Southern European or Scandinavian leaders quite the same courtesy. Italy and Spain, for example, refer to their Head of Government as “Presidente” (“President”; understood in these cases to mean “of the Council” or “of the Government”), but to avoid any clash with the usual term used for the Head of State in a republic English sticks with the translation “prime minister”. Sweden, Denmark and Norway, on the other hand, refers to their Heads of Government as “statsminister” (“minister of state”), but to avoid potential confusion with lower ranking ministers English again here sticks with “prime minister”. These things are never straightforward!

Interestingly, although it was widely used from the Victorian Era, the term “Prime Minister” did not appear in law even in the UK until the 1930s and still does not, of itself, carry any salary. An Taoiseach is, of course, notoriously overpaid…

Dear PM, Do not be Captain who sank the Titanic

Dear Prime Minister,

The great city of Belfast was home to a news conference on Monday which played significant part in the latest failure to make a breakthrough in seeking a post-Brexit UK/EU partnership. Accompanied by Nationalist pressures in Scotland and regionalist pressures in London, as well as the subsequent admission that “impact assessments” do not in fact exist, it served as the latest warning that on 23 June 2016 the people voted on a profoundly false prospectus. 

The great city of Belfast was also, of course, home to the construction of the great ship, RMS Titanic. “It was fine when it left us” goes the local refrain! There is, in fact, some dispute among historians over some of the issues around its sinking in 1912. However, what is not in dispute is the ultimate outcome of its first and only voyage, nor who had ultimate responsibility for that outcome.

1,517 people were killed when Titanic sank, and the consequent damage, suffering and grief in some ways still lives with us in what is now a post-industrial city and a post-industrial country. The scale of the disaster is such that many people can still recite the name of the person ultimately responsible – Captain Edward Smith. 

For amid all the debate about what happened on that fateful voyage, one thing is clear. When Captain Smith received the warning of icebergs ahead, he should either have stopped or changed course. 

Perhaps it was the ludicrous notion that the ship was unsinkable, perhaps it was the idea that he had to get to New York ahead of schedule, perhaps it was pure Imperial bravado – but whatever the reason was, Captain Smith ignored the warnings and his name now lives on in infamy. Whatever else he achieved in his life, he alone was responsible for ploughing on regardless, and he alone was responsible for the immense grief and suffering thus caused.

Now, you are the Captain. The warning lights are flashing. To plough on regardless, whatever those around you and in the media may be saying, is not a risk; it is to maintain a course you know will result in disaster (with life boats only available for some in first class). You can see the iceberg as well as I can, and you know as well as I do that, like Captain Smith, you in fact have only two legitimate options now to avoid immense suffering – you can either stop and reassess, or you can change course. 

History will of course judge you solely by which option you choose – providing leadership to prevent suffering, or standing by and allowing it to be caused. You can choose to go down in history like Captain Smith – or you can do the right thing. 

Yours sincerely,

Did tweet block UK-EU deal?

An interesting and quite compelling notion was put forward by a former DUP Chief of Staff over the past 24 hours that it was a tweet by an RTÉ reporter which “derailed” the UK-EU deal on the Irish border and thus the prospects of moving to the next stage.

I suspect there is an element of truth to that.

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That was the actual text of the deal.

Yet the suggestion which flew about like wildfire on social media was in fact that the UK was about to agree that Northern Ireland would remain in the Single Market and the Customs Union. This derived from an RTÉ reporter’s tweet which did not quite say that but, in an era where people want quick (even if quick means inaccurate) news and where, I fear, concepts such as the “Customs Union” and “Single Market” are not well understood, was deemed to have implied it.

Clearly there was no way the DUP could sign up to anything even approaching this – and in fact no one was asking them to. But even the remote appearance of doing so would be electorally damaging, and there is nothing to which the DUP is more acutely sensitive than electoral damage.

To be clear about what was actually going on… the 1998 “Good Friday” Agreement is in fact an international treaty between the UK and Ireland. What this deal is clearly designed to recognise is that common North-South regulations are required in areas identified in that Agreement/Treaty (e.g. animal safety) and indeed in areas where there is obviously pre-existing cooperation not specifically identified (e.g. sport), and that because the Ireland (the state) is in the EU this in practice means the UK will have to ensure there is alignment with the Single Market and the Customs Union (whose rules Ireland is obliged to follow as an EU member). The UK was in effect merely clarifying that it would take the necessary steps to adhere to the Treaty even if there were no further deal with the EU on other matters. Such a clarification was all Ireland needed to agree that the border issue was at least being taken seriously, and thus that talks could proceed to the future relationship including a trade deal. Hence the genuine all-round astonishment that there was any issue with the text.

Nevertheless, we live in an era of “quick but inaccurate”. We write and speak quickly but rarely take time to think. Whether in this specific case it is really true that the DUP was spooked by the headline, it is certainly true that the “quick but inaccurate” era is making government and perhaps even democracy itself decidedly more difficult.

 

UK humiliated again – by itself

Yesterday was a remarkable day. As part of the Brexit process, a deal seemed imminent and then the UK, once a beacon of political stability, completely humiliated itself yet again.

First, the actual issue. The 1998 Belfast “Good Friday” Agreement creates, under Strand 2, cross-border bodies and defines areas for cross-border cooperation, such as food safety and energy. As Ireland cannot unilaterally change its regulations and standards around these issues because it is bound by EU laws and rules, this means that Northern Ireland has to align its to the EU’s to enable the cross-border cooperation to continue. Add that to a reasonably comprehensive trade deal and, with regard to customs, you remove the need for all but the odd spot check at the actual frontier and a few elsewhere thus maintaining a relatively frictionless border. Reason prevails. Deal.

Secondly, though, of course with Brexit reason never prevails. Brexit is a profoundly unreasonable thing. And so, of course, it didn’t. Oh no, says a party which commands a third of a vote in a part of the UK with under 3% of the population, you cannot possibly be reasonable. Oh no, say Scottish Nationalists, you cannot just do this for one part of the Kingdom. Oh, and by the way, says the London Mayor, we quite fancy a bit of this “differential Brexit” too… This is all about nationalistic grandstanding which must then be matched by regional grandstanding. As with Brexit itself, compromise collapses and madness prevails.

It is astonishing that the Prime Minister did not consult the party on which she relies for a majority in advance (and I believe it is as simple as that). It is remarkable too that she seemed unaware of the constitutional implications elsewhere, even within England. That just shows how inept she is. If you trust her to negotiate a trade deal with China when she cannot even negotiate a customs deal with, er, the UK, you too have lost all sense of reason.

By the way, as for the argument that Northern Ireland cannot be separated from the UK… this is the same DUP which has maintained separate libel laws to protect its own representatives, separate party donor laws to protect its own funders, and even instituted a separate boiler scheme… to say nothing of basic social rights it denies citizens here which have long existed in Britain. So let us hear no more bleating about “separation” from the very party which keeps us separate.

The actual solution, of course, is for the whole of the UK to stay in the same customs area as the rest of the EU. But then, the actual solution is for the whole of the UK to stay in the EU. The people may have expressed their will – but it was based on a false and unreasonable prospectus. And that really should be the end of it.

Has Liberalism eaten itself?

I have been wanting to write a post along the lines of this one by former Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron for some time.

What do you think?!

Arlene Foster’s shirking of responsibility at heart of problem

Naomi Long earned credit across the board for a recent note dismissing Arlene Foster’s pretensions about being the judge of what is and what is not acceptable to “Northern Ireland”. Mrs Foster, of course, holds no office. While she represents the largest party, it holds nothing like a majority and, arguably, as many people vote against it as for it. There was an important underlying point, of course, that in fact the DUP’s view on the EU is clearly a minority position.

What was most striking about the whole episode, however, was the extension of the note to include staff who tweet on behalf of Mrs Foster. As the time of the recent Royal engagement, I happened to be in the United States. Even there Mrs Foster’s gaffe, misspelling Meghan Markle and misidentifying her fiancé completely, made news.

It was embarrassing and ridiculous and it was Mrs Foster’s fault, because it was her responsibility. Yet her subsequent tweet showed her inadequate side up for what it is. Far from accepting the responsibility and the consequent blame, she instead shirked it and tried to blame a staff member. Her claim that she has not been tweeting herself for some time, far from successfully re-assigning blame elsewhere, merely introduces another question – why not? Mrs Foster holds no office and is if course not currently overburdened with duties in Assembly plenary sessions and such like, so why exactly can she not do her own tweeting? What else, precisely, is she actually doing?

The whole episode merely demonstrated again a serious failing; the failing, in fact, which threatens Northern Ireland’s whole system of government. Yet again, as with RHI, Mrs Foster cannot grasp that leadership comes with responsibility. Seeking to apportion blame to underlings is a sign of deep insecurity and stark lack of capability. It is hard to get excited about trying to restore devolved government when it means handing responsibility to people who refuse to take any.

The dangerous nonsense of “No Deal”

It really should not be necessary to write this piece. But, particularly if you voted Leave, you need to read it – because a “No Deal” Brexit is not what you voted for.

The core problem the UK is having as it fails abjectly to negotiate its way out of the EU is that those leading the negotiations have no comprehension of the EU. The EU is a union of sovereign states which pool their sovereignty to create and regulate a Single Market of rules. This means, for example, that it is not just a free trade bloc but also a regulatory framework within which, for example, dangerous criminals are extradited, hazardous but vital materials are transported, and trade deals with the rest of the world are concluded. Without these arrangements, there is no way to secure, for example, the extradition of dangerous criminals , the transport of hazardous materials, or the arrangement on preferential terms of international trade – just by way of example. For all of these things, given cultural differences and potential one-upmanship, there are agreed rules – and there is that word again, because the whole thing cannot work without rules (and the means of enforcing them). After all, if you extradite a criminal or transport nuclear material or indeed simply engage in trade, you need to know what the rules are to be sure you are secure in what you are doing. Where such rules do not exist, extradition is often delayed or halted, transport is often blocked or stopped, and cross-border trade becomes subject to tariffs and bureaucracy.

As a member of the EU, in areas such as the European Arrest Warrant, Euratom and the Customs Union, the UK can do all of the above freely. If it opts to leave the EU, it opts out of the rules with govern the European Arrest Warrant (say, for criminal extradition), Euratom (say, for transport of nuclear material for radiotherapy) and the Customs Union (say, for barrier-free trade). EU countries can no longer cooperate with the UK on these matters because they have no guarantee of the rules which the UK will apply. In any such international situation, the rules around criminal extradition, transport of hazardous material or indeed trade and tariffs are governed by treaties – yet “no deal” means “no treaty”.

So “no deal” Brexit means the UK will become less safe – having to house other countries’ criminals while being unable to get to those who have fled the country (but no doubt have networks within it still). “No deal” Brexit means its population will lack access to vital cancer treatment as there is, for example, no agreement on the transport of nuclear material such as the radioisotopes needed for radiotherapy (which the UK must import as its own reactors do not create it, and will not for another decade at least). “No deal” Brexit means not just that the UK loses preferential access to the Single Market (the largest trading bloc in the world) but actually to any market anywhere – with trade deals then negotiated by the UK without any trained negotiators with other countries certain to capitalise on what they know to be an extraordinarily weak economic and political position.

This is of course before we get to the point that a “No Deal” Brexit has no democratic legitimacy whatsoever. Many who voted Leave were duped (and they were duped, as is now obvious) into believing a deal/treaty with the EU on terms favourable to the UK would be “easy”. They should not now be duped by the very same people complaining that it is “too hard”!

This is not the EU “being awkward”. It is the EU saying simply “We are a union of sovereign states; as such we have rules; and if you want to cooperate with us you need to abide by those rules (and, by the way, if you want actually to influence them you need to, y’know, be a member…)”

It’s not complicated. This point is accepted by many Leavers, who thought they were leaving for a new associate arrangement (e.g. through EFTA), not to isolate themselves from the entire planet.

So there is no way to put this other than this: the UK cannot suggest it is prepared for a “no deal” Brexit for the simple reason that it isn’t. It would be catastrophic – for security, for health, for jobs and for much much more.

So maybe now, more than half way from Referendum Day to Brexit Day, it would perhaps be wise to hand over the negotiations to someone who actually knows that they are doing?

 

 

UK desperately needs to improve productivity to avoid another crash

It is a sign of the times that the Chancellor’s announcement that the UK’s deficit would not now be cleared until 2031 was scarcely mentioned after the Budget yesterday. Yet it is astonishing. The Conservatives were elected in 2010 on a pledge to remove the deficit by 2015. They then delayed this to 2020. Now they are adding a full decade and some. It is hard to believe Labour would have done any worse.

Let us again be clear also that we are merely talking about the deficit, not the debt. The deficit is the amount by which the debt rises. So the debt is soaring to almost unthinkable levels already; that the deficit will not be closed for another fourteen years defies credibility.

The UK Government has tried to reduce the deficit by reducing public spending but, as any business or even household will tell you, it is always easier to clear deficits and debts by raising revenue rather than reducing outgoings. Raising revenue means raising taxes. Or does it?

All other things being equal, raisng revenue does mean raising taxes. Yet in fact there is another way – raising productivity would mean that the amount of revenue raised even from the current tax base with people working current hours would be increased. Since the UK lags at the bottom of Western productivity levels, this increase could be quite dramatic if the UK even moved towards the OECD average.

We are now at the stage, however, where this is a must. Few in the UK are unemployed but many are underemployed. This situation is only worsening as it is masked by headline figures. It is a serious issue, however, because debt levels are unsustainable and can only mean another crash is imminent. Car financing, for example, is now totally out of control; in the South of England and the Channel Islands property prices are simply ludicrous to the extent that they must crash some time; and household debt continues to rise as consumerism (rather than productivity) keeps the economy from stalling completely.

In other words, the UK has to raise productivity now, or it faces another crash. (And all this is regardless of the consequences of Brexit, which will plainly not help.)

All far from lost in Northern Ireland

A few weeks ago the media spoke of a “deal” between the DUP and Sinn Fein being nigh. The truth is, it was never that close.

Now the media speak of the end of all things, as if all roads point to Direct Rule. The truth is, that is not the case either.

Let us look at it this way. There was a referendum in Australia last week on same-sex marriage, which passed with 61.6% of the vote – a result remarkably reminiscent of that in the Republic. If there were such a referendum in Northern Ireland (and, to be clear, there does not need to be), what would the result be? I would venture to suggest it would be remarkably similar again. Interestingly, at an election under a proportional system in March, at least 53 out of 90 MLAs (perhaps rather more) were elected having stated they are in clear support of same-sex marriage – again, a remarkably similar proportion.

Northern Ireland will at the end of the year be the only English-speaking jurisdiction in the Western World where same-sex marriage is not legal. But let us be clear, that is not because the population opposes it (plainly it does not); indeed it is not even because most of the people they elect oppose it (plainly they do not); it is because of the structure of Northern Ireland’s devolved institutions.

Northern Ireland has its problems, of course. Racially motivated hate crime, levels of suicide, and rates of domestic intimidation are appallingly high. Yet in other ways things are not so bad: community relations are good enough that parades disputes are, more or less, a thing of the past; exports are soaring; unemployment is almost too low at just 4.0% (and even youth unemployment is among the lowest in the West). In the midst of all of this, we should be clear that the social attitudes of the population really are not much different to those in any other comparable jurisdiction – in terms of same-sex marriage and many other things.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, therefore, I am concerned about the simple route to restoration of devolution. Yes, in theory the requirement is for two particular parties to agree to form an Executive and to do this we could in fact simply pass composite language and culture legislation incorporating an Irish Language Act and we could have a free vote on same-sex marriage. That would get us Ministers back at their desks – and indeed, that should happen. But we must not fool ourselves that that is the end of the story, because the structural problem would remain.

Here, we have to face a fact the two largest parties will not like very much. The 2006 Agreement actually set us back. It was inferior to the 1998 Agreement. Ever since 2006, the two Governments and others have continuously sought to soothe matters and ensure maintenance of devolution by playing exclusively to the interests of the two large parties who agreed to the inferior 2006 deal. Since then absolutely everything – from the Review of Public Administration to the Social Investment Fund – has been done by those two parties for those two parties. Elections then take the form of a farce, with voters forced in effect to choose one of those two blocks based on their own background rather than on what is good for society as a whole (as represented most obviously by the race for First Minister based on a sneaky amendment which did not even appear in the 2006 Agreement). The other parties are left playing by different rules – and yet still manage to command 44% of the first-preference vote, only to be routinely ignored by the Governments as they seek to tempt the DUP and Sinn Fein with another democratic skew.

So although we may regard it as positive that Sinn Fein says all that is required is movement on “rights issues” (by which it means the Irish Language Act and maybe Same-Sex Marriage), and indeed that should be addressed and Ministers returned to work, we should be under no illusions that the current structure is going to see us through. It isn’t.

The fact is we will get nowhere for as long as we reward clientelism over competence.

It is time for reform. Actually, it is time we actually tried democracy.