Nolan doesn’t do “debate”

Stephen Nolan recently tweeted that interest in attending his TV show demonstrated the public appetite for “debate”. Therein lies the problem. Nolan does not do debate, or even conversation. And what he does do is actually quite damaging.

What shock jocks do and, in Northern Ireland at least, that is what Stephen Nolan is, is slanging matches. Those are quite different from debates. Slanging matches consist of opposing sides simply stating their view, often quite loudly and occasionally rudely, without even beginning to listen to the opposing viewpoint. Debates, at least if they are to be meaningful, are quite different from that.

The purpose of a debate, in fact, is to reach a meaningful conclusion – quite often one which, by definition, will be a compromise. For this to happen, in practice, there at least has to be agreement on the basics of the issue.

For example, if someone fundamentally believe that a living being exists from conception and someone else takes the view that life does not occur until birth, they cannot have a meaningful debate on abortion; that can only happen if both participants at least take the basic position that life occurs somewhere between conception and birth (in which case a meaningful debate, potentially with an agreed outcome, can take place on the circumstances and timing under which an abortion should be allowed to occur).

What Nolan does, deliberately, is pick the extremes. As a result, no actual debate can take place. This is why it in fact becomes necessary, for example, for parties involved in negotiations to ignore his show. If the founding basis of his show is not even agreed (or is even just plain wrong, as per his recent radio show on roadworks), then absolutely nothing constructive can arise from the slanging match which inevitably results.

I suspect the Northern Irish public are interested in debate, but for that to happen it needs a mix of genuinely representative and expert opinion (and probably more than two sides – there is no reason to believe an outcome has to be constructed solely on binary viewpoints) to produce the basis at least for a conversation which may deliver a meaningful outcome.

Since the BBC is supposed to be about educating and informing (leaving others to chase ratings), maybe it is time for a fundamental rethink of how it does such programmes.


Catalonia and Northern Ireland – both cases of two nations in the same space?

In my response to the Haass Talks I suggested that they would get nowhere without first agreeing what Northern Ireland is. I posited that Northern Ireland is a “multinational state”, exemplified by the town centre of Downpatrick, where at one location three streets meet – Irish Street, Scotch Street and English Street. That, right there, is Northern Ireland.

You cannot begin to make any argument around the future constitutional status or broad cultural policy of this place without starting from there. We are the crossroads of three nations (albeit for most purposes “English” and “Scotch” here are content to share the designation “British”), and the best we can do is make the intersection between them as freeflowing as possible – allowing expression of Irishness and various forms of Britishness, without doing so in a way which is provocative or simply unreasonable.

This has not been wholly unsuccessful by any means. The parades issue (profoundly one of reasonable expression of identity) has largely been resolved, even if it took the best part of two decades. However, many so-called “debates” never truly get started (as the Haass Talks didn’t) because they do not agree on this fundamental starting point.

I am very frustrated by the way in which people elsewhere in Europe, and most obviously in Scotland and across Ireland, have approached the breakdown in Catalonia merely by foisting their own prejudices upon it. This is all the more frustrating because the situation – and the assumptions around the situation – are profoundly different there, and elsewhere in Spain. The history, the culture, the role of the security forces, the attitude towards voting are all different – sometimes obviously and sometimes subtly – so as to defy detailed understanding from afar. One thing does strike me as a parallel, however – Catalonia is also a location where two nations (I accept this is a controversial word there!) share a single region.

The answer in Northern Ireland – and it is the answer whether people care to accept it in full or not – is to allow people to choose either nation, and while accepting sovereignty will be determined by the majority in a referendum also reflecting this dual nationality in the institutions (such as cross-border bodies, etc). Absolutism one way or the other – demanding everyone be of just one nation and utterly ignoring the other – did not and cannot work.

That, inevitably, will also be the answer in Catalonia. You cannot “stand with the Catalans” without reflecting that, by nationality, some are Catalan but not Spanish, some are Spanish but not Catalan, and some are both. “Freedom” for one nation inevitably means oppression of the other. Any constitutional outcome, therefore, cannot consist of absolutism – but rather will have to reflect the dual Catalan-Spanish national identity of the region. The truth in the end is that the Statute of Autonomy, similar to Northern Ireland’s “Good Friday Agreement”, is the answer – or, at least, a good deal closer to it than either Direct Rule from Madrid or outright independence outside the EU.

The other current parallel is that in both cases there are two Leaders insisting on their own absolutism with no real sense of give and take. However in Northern Ireland, exceedingly frustrating though it is, at least they are talking to each other and perhaps even seeking to mend relationships. As we look to Catalonia we may usefully reflect that we are, in fact, the lucky ones.

EU customs issues need more careful discussion for NI SEZ

Leave voters need to learn one thing and learn it quickly. A “no deal” Brexit is not an option. Not only would it cut the UK off from all global trade, but it would restrict cancer treatments, stop extradition of criminals, and potentially even limit foreign travel. To suggest the UK enhances its negotiating position by suggesting it is an option is sheer unadulterated lunacy – for the simple reason that it isn’t an option.

Remain voters also need to learn something too, however. They are often just as bad at suggesting options which simply do not exist. One such, presented primarily by the left-wing press at the weekend, was that Northern Ireland could somehow remain in the Customs Union and the Single Market while also remaining in the UK all while the rest of the UK does not remain in the Customs Union and the Single Market. That is administratively, economically and politically impossible.

Let us just assess the technicalities quickly. If you leave the EU, you leave its Customs Union and its Single Market. It would be possible for the UK as a whole then to form a Customs Union with it (not the same as “remaining in” the Customs Union, as it would almost inevitably have exceptions); and it would be possible for the UK to participate in the Single Market – perhaps in a very limited bilateral way like Moldova, perhaps in a more formal free trade way like Switzerland, perhaps in a fairly full way like Norway and Iceland. The key phrase there is “participate in”; the EU is the Single Market and the Single Market is the EU, but non-EU states may participate.

From Northern Ireland’s point of view, it would be ludicrous – taking an objective position economically and administratively – to put in place practical barriers to trade with the rest of the UK. Northern Ireland relies on the rest of the UK for common regulations in areas such as Health, for shared intelligence, and (not least) for the vast majority of its current trade. So the notion that it would somehow erect a practical restriction to free movement (of anything – people, workers, goods, services, information) between it and the rest of the UK is simply not viable. No one is seriously suggesting it and be wary of reports that anyone is.

What Northern Ireland could do (assuming, ahem, its devolved institutions are operational in some form) is relocate customs spot checks away from the actual border (turning them from an administrative point of view into something more like excise) and at the same time maintain EU standards to a wider degree than the rest of the UK. Customs checks would take place at point of origin or destination (whichever is geographically in Northern Ireland) or at the ports (specifically for goods which do not have origin or destination in Northern Ireland). By maintaining common standards across a range of areas with the EU (and thus the Single Market), “Made in Northern Ireland” would come to mean “maintaining the highest standards both in the UK and the EU”. Then, by declaring Northern Ireland a “Special Enterprise Zone” maintaining its own rates of corporation tax and air passenger duty as well as “highest UK/EU standards”, Northern Ireland could participate in the Single Market on a preferential basis to the rest of the UK (all while having unhindered access to and from markets in the rest of the UK).

However, it is important, particularly here, to get the descriptions right. This is not shifting Northern Ireland out of the UK and it does not require shifting actual political borders in any way whatsoever. It requires some administrative differences between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK which are much in line with those which already exist. We may reflect, regardless of our own constitutional preference, that the outcome would mean maintaining the Irish border free of physical infrastructure while making Northern Ireland the best place in the world to invest, at least for some industries, because it could access without hindrance the widest possible customer market across the whole of the UK and the EU.

So let us stop the fantasies on either side, and focus on the prize. Participation is the key word!


At Stormont, democracy must prevail – even when it’s wrong

Even with a strong tail wind we are realistically at least a month away from any deal to restore our devolved institutions, for all kinds of reasons, and possibly rather longer. That leads some in the commentariat to suggest it is stretching its viability. Yet that is another example of what I referred to yesterday – people trying to overturn democratic outcomes through artificial interventions. The people must get what they voted for.

The current Northern Ireland Assembly (the one the people elected) actually exists – it does not sit because of Northern Ireland’s bizarre insistence on having an Executive before its legislature may meet to discuss anything else, but it does exist. It was elected in a free election with a broadly proportional system, and the people voted for what they voted for in the full knowledge that it would likely deliver gridlock, paralysis and atrophy.

So gridlock, paralysis and atrophy are what they must get. It’s called democracy.

I have of course long argued on these pages that the requirement for an Executive to be formed before the Assembly may meet to discuss anything should be removed; I have argued that the requirement for two specific parties to agree before an Executive is formed should also be removed; I have indeed argued that the requirement in effect for any decision to have an absolute majority of both designations should also be removed except where in legitimate instances where minority interests may genuinely be harmed. All of those moves would be legitimate for a Secretary of State to make in the interests of good government, and may well enable restoration. So that is where the focus should be – nowhere else.

But, for all that, there is no getting away from what the people voted for. In a system which they know requires partnership government, they voted for parties with commitments which made it very difficult for them to be partners. Democracy requires that the voters experience the consequences of their choices. After all, it is only then there will ever be even the remote possibility that, next time, they may make a more sensible one…

NI’s problem, in the end, is we don’t care about each other very much

Upon establishing that I was a “Protestant”, a German student once asked me why I hated Catholics. It was a quintessentially abrupt and of course nonsensical question. There are exceptions but in Northern Ireland we do not, by and large, hate each other.

Nor do we care about each other very much, however. I am increasingly of the view this is our fundamental problem.

To give another German reference from my past, I had a friend who was an interpreter for a group from Baden-Württemberg in southern Germany on a trip to meet MLAs at Stormont some years ago. “What was striking was that not a single MLA asked them about where they came from”, she said. It strikes me to be a trait of Northern Irish politicians more than most that they show no interest in anywhere or really anyone else.

Even internally. The pages of the Newsletter have been a particular disappointment in recent weeks. Even supposedly “moderate” unionists have lined up opposed to the great bogeyman of an “Irish Language Act”. None has bothered to ask the question why the idea is so important to so many of their fellow citizens. Not once was it suggested that perhaps, if this issue meant so much to a large number of fellow citizens, some effort should be made to enable it (even the few Unionists arguing for an ILA did so fundamentally on Unionist terms). They just don’t care.

Of course, this works both ways. Not meeting royalty, not ever using the official name of this place, or indeed not even shaking hands with Duke of Edinburgh students are all examples of a callous disregard for fellow citizens. So what if they’re offended? We really don’t care.

Arguably we are even seeing a third strand to this, with predominantly young social liberals emerging not as an anti-sectarian voice but actually as a third communal bloc, ranting angrily at anyone who shows any hint of, say, national pride or religious faith.

This the crux of the breakdown. We are right and they – well, to be honest, we really don’t care about them. Their interests and their priorities are secondary to ours and can only be dealt with in that order.

This is how we come to this remarkable position where people who access the same Health Service, use the same transport, go to schools financed from the same budget and even share the same workplaces fundamentally do not care about each other enough even to think (far less advocate) that it may just be a good idea to show interest, demonstrate respect and work to enable things which are important to them to happen.

As a result we end up in two, nay three separate polities. We have Unionists who want Unionist politicians to stick up for them, Nationalists who want Nationalist politicians to stick up for them, and Progressives who are long past caring about the whole thing. As a result the absence of government over health and education is met not with mass demonstrations in the streets, but rather with a collective yawn.

20 years on from the Agreement, is it not time we began to care about each other?

Could someone please turn the UK off and on again?

As of today Britain, long a beacon of stable democracy, cannot even hold a Cabinet meeting.

Things would be bad enough with past misconduct bringing Ministers into disrepute (and not just in London; one has also gone in Scotland), key party funders hiding tax offshore and the Government in any case lacking a parliamentary majority. However, the central issue remains that the Government is hopelessly divided over Brexit; and that the division is not ideological, but rather between those who have some notion of the real world and those who have none whatsoever.

The UK Government is stumbling towards a “no deal” Brexit not because it is what it wants (we need to be very clear there is no parliamentary majority and thus no democratic justification for a “no deal” outcome), but because it lacks the basic ability to understand what it is doing. The three main Brexiteer Ministers are lazy incompetent bunglers, incapable of understanding that the EU is far less the complexities of what leaving it actually means.

What is means is no material to carry out vital cancer treatments; no means of administering flights between the UK and the Continent or Ireland; no arrangements for transporting dangerous criminals across the UK border; and so the list goes on, making economic collapse and calamitously slashed government revenue for delivering public services almost the least of our problems. The fundamental issue is on the UK side – it does not understand that the EU is a Single Market of rules, and those rules cannot just be broken by a quick negotiation feint here and there.

We are probably already long past the stage where the only conceivable way out of this was to apply to join EFTA. That would at least have given a framework for cooperation, but with the UK Government so unstable (in every sense) and public life generally clearly in such a shambolic state, there is now a fair chance such an application would be rejected.

Let us just be clear: the UK Cabinet cannot meet.

That means the UK is fundamentally ungovernable.

This was not the case before 23 June 2016.

So in fact, now, the only definite way out of this is to rescind notification of Article 50.

Less versus fewer

“Because we had fewer chances we had less chance.”

That just sounds right, doesn’t it? Yet one of the most common “errors” we see in daily English concerns “less versus fewer” (and its cousin “number versus amount”, but we will leave that be here).

It is an error, by the way, and not just a matter of non-standard usage (a different thing). For me, however, it is an entirely forgivable error because the reverse uses the same word: “Because we had more chances we had more chance.”

Indeed, I would suggest that a century from now, “less” will be deemed correct in both instances and the (longer) word “fewer” will be consigned to the designation “archaic”.

However, what is going on here?

In fact, what is going on is relatively simple. “Less” derives from the comparative form of “little”, and therefore in effect means “more little”. So, above, “we had little chance” goes to “less [more little] chance”.

The derivation of “fewer” is more obvious; it is the regular comparative form of “few”. So “we had few chances” and then “fewer chances”.

By removing the comparative element we can select the correct one. It would be literally senseless to write “we had few chance” (thus equally senseless to write “fewer chance”); and likewise it would be senseless (or at least convey the wrong meaning) to write “we had little chances” (thus equally odd to write “less chances”).

So this is not really very complicated. However, will it still be observed in the 22nd century? There’s little chance…

Do we need to re-assess how legal cases are brought?

Big health warning: there is one legally qualified person in my household, and it isn’t me.

However, I have written before several times about the totally spurious case raised against the construction of the A6 expressway from Toome to Castledawson – a case which may have cost the public purse as much as £8 million (surely better spent on cancer drugs and the like) as well as the time delay caused (inconveniencing literally tens of thousands of people every day).

There must, in a democracy, be a means and even financial support for people to make a challenge where they believe the law has not been applied. However, in the A6 expressway example, there simply was and is no case. At no stage was any instance given of how construction of the expressway breached any law. Fundamentally, one person did not like the fact a democratic decision had been made to build it, and a legal firm seemingly was happy to take the money to push paper around at a cost of millions. This, surely, is an utter farce.

Last week, there was another example of this. A campaigner decided he would challenge the Conservative-DUP confidence-and-supply deal “on the grounds it breaches the Good Friday Agreement”. There is an obvious problem with this: it doesn’t.

The Agreement is very clear. By sovereignty, Northern Ireland is part of the UK until its people decide otherwise, and its people may always choose to be British. This, quite obviously, means they have every right to participate in the politics and government of the UK.

Indeed, it is utterly obvious also that this person would not have raised a case against a Labour-SNP arrangement of the same type (and he in the past raised no query about the SDLP taking the Labour whip, as it always did). Ultimately, as with the A6 expressway example, he was raising a legal challenge simply because he did not like a democratic outcome.

Therefore, after the judgment, it was made absolutely clear that the taxpayer would not bear the cost of the entirely spurious legal challenge. So why was that not the case with the A6?

We simply cannot continue to allow spurious legal challenges to be made by people who do not like democratic decisions. It is this which in fact profoundly damages democracy. Democracy requires and demands that we have the opportunity to make our case, but also that we accept the outcome when it goes against us. We are of course perfectly at liberty to continue to argue against democratic decisions as long as we ourselves do so democratically. But this nonsense of millions of taxpayers’ money being spent on legal challenges to perfectly legitimate democratic decisions must end right now.

So maybe legal experts can tell me. When a case is made to prosecute someone for a crime, a reasonable argument has to be made that the person may be found guilty before the case is allowed to go to trial by the prosecutor’s office (in Northern Ireland’s case, the PPS). Surely a similar test with a similar level of scrutiny should take place before a legal challenge is even allowed to go to court (far less at taxpayers’ expense)?

Actually what the Good Friday Agreement was about was putting democracy before anything else. So it is important that it is not undermined by spurious legal challenges in this way. All thoughts welcome.

What might a Stormont “Deal” look like?

If you read the newspapers or read most of social media, you would imagine that what we are waiting for is a “Deal” which delivers a functioning devolved Executive almost immediately. In fact, many MLAs probably think the same thing. Yet, as noted explicitly on The Detail and implicitly on, that is probably not how it will play out in practice.

Let us return first to the structural problem (not least because even people identified as “political correspondents” can miss it). There is no functioning Assembly because there is no Executive (Northern Ireland’s system is peculiar in requiring an Executive before there is an Assembly) – or actually specifically because there are no Executive Ministers.

So, in principle, what is required is an agreement between the two big parties to allow a First Minister and deputy First Minister to be appointed, and thus Executive Ministers to be put in post.

This may not be a conceivable way forward, however. In principle, for example, a “Deal” will require legislation – in some cases, surely, legislation which has not yet been drafted. It would not be wholly unreasonable for the various parties to want to see what is drafted, but that would take time. Thus immediate and full restoration may not be viable – as it really would be a debacle to set it all up only to have to bring it down again.

Let us then risk some assumptions.

Firstly, a “Deal” requires the agreement of two particular parties who do not currently get on well, and thus what will be sought is an all-party Executive (i.e. with 4-5 parties). So the “Deal” cannot be agreed by the two parties alone; an early stage of one maybe, but not the whole thing.

Secondly, strictly speaking a functioning Assembly requires as Executive (i.e. Ministers appointed) but not necessarily a functioning Executive Committee. There have been several occasions already in the history of the Assembly where parties have withdrawn from Executive Committee meetings without resigning their Executive ministries. Certainly a possible if not even likely stage in the restoration of the institutions will be the appointment of Executive Ministers (thus enabling Departments to function) without the Executive Committee itself formally meeting (thus major decisions and strategic direction will remain delayed). There is at least one breakthrough proposal which specifically states this.

Thirdly, restoration requires legislation in any case, and if legislation is passed it could enable a gradual restoration of the institutions in any case. As in 2006, the Assembly could begin to meet to discuss procedures and motions and conceivably even to scrutinise Departmental actions without yet re-assuming legislative powers (this has happened in the past); and it could even assume legislative powers without Ministers in place (this is quite normal elsewhere).

A “Deal”, in other words, may be gradual while trust is restored. After all, if the parties don’t bring their voters with them (at least for the most part), the deal won’t stick in any case.


Leavers think UK should default on its debt

The Conservatives came to power in 2010 essentially on the premise that the national debt had to be brought back under control. There is of course “no magic money tree” and the notion that a country could just get away with defaulting on its debts was left to apparent lunatics like Syriza in Greece.

It was obvious, agreed every Conservative in the land, that defaulting on debt would precipitate economic collapse and something like “failed state” status because it would never again be possible for the country to borrow reliably. Indeed, they even embarked on a bilateral loan to Troika-occupied Ireland to make the point.

How things change. Remarkably, many of those same Conservatives are now suggesting exactly that – that the UK should default. This is bizarre, because the consequences and indeed penalties of doing so have not changed.

Of course, they dress up this default by laughably referring to it as an EU “exit fee”. They omit to mention that when you break a contract, you are still liable for that contract – try exiting your BT or Sky contract without paying it off in full!

The notion that the UK could somehow walk away from the EU without paying what it has already committed (not least for the pensions of its own employees) is by any definition a default – and, worse still, a default to our main trading partners and closest allies.

Underlying this all is of course the truth of the matter: far from paying off an unfulfilled contract, it would actually be in the UK’s interests just to maintain it. After all, the decline in the currency alone has already cost the average UK household more than they “paid in” to the EU. Unfortunately these basic facts struggle to resonate among populists embarking on a pure and damaging act of sheer faith.