Sinn Féin can’t deliver United Ireland

Predictably, absolutely nothing new of real consequence emerged from Sinn Féin’s conference on a “United Ireland” last month. While attendees were invited to think new thoughts, there was precious little evidence of any. We should nevertheless welcome that at least Sinn Féin is now engaged with reality – no, they are not the “legitimate government”, yes Ireland is partitioned in reality, so indeed persuasion (and nothing else) must be the way forward.

For all that, it should be obvious that this is already an almighty task. For all the talk of finding ways to reflect “Unionists’ British identity” in a United Ireland, there is very little evidence that this identity is seriously understood and, in any case, the fact is that Unionists’ British identity is already reflected by the constitutional status quo.

Even if this could be overcome, one of the most obvious “new thoughts” should have been, of course, that Sinn Féin cannot deliver a United Ireland. You simply cannot, on one hand, apologise for a terrorist campaign designed to force Unionists into a United Ireland and then, on the other, act as persuaders of those same Unionists. The level of trust will never seriously be there to accomplish that.

In fact, the very first step in any progress towards Irish unity would be an acceptance that that terrorist campaign was both illegitimate and pointless. It is easy to forget that most Irish Nationalists do accept this basic point, even if they rarely say it as directly. So if a United Ireland is ever to become feasible, it will be those other Irish Nationalists, not Sinn Féin and certainly not Gerry Adams, to make it so.

Are we interested in tackling prejudice, or just talking about it?

I was appalled by an MP’s use of a derogatory and unquestionably racist term in Parliament earlier this month. Yet I also found the righteous indignation which followed it somewhat unhelpful to the overall objective of ending prejudice. To me, it hinted that some Liberals are more interested in theoretically removing prejudice from our vocabulary, than practically removing it from society. Research backs up this concern.

Consider this: research shows beyond dispute that parents are two and a half times more likely to complete the google search “Is my son gifted?” than “Is my daughter gifted?”

This is remarkable, because of course boys are no more likely to be gifted than girls (in fact, the evidence suggests they are marginally less so). If any parent were asked in public or in a survey if they thought it more likely boys were gifted than girls, they would deny it. If a politician suggested such a thing they would face righteous indignation and their resignation would be demanded. And yet, in the privacy of their own home, people (that is, lots and lots of people) do actually think it.

It gets worse. Let us try the same test when we remove the word “gifted” and replace it with “overweight”. Boys are in fact considerably more likely to be overweight than girls, so we would expect this to be asked of sons as often if not more often than of daughters. Yet in fact the google search “Is my daughter overweight?” is twice as common as “Is my son overweight?”

If anything I find this second even more concerning. Although we would all publicly deny it, it shows right from the outset a profound social reality that females are judged on appearance much more than (twice as much as) males – even by their own parents. That is prejudice, pure and simple – why should overt displays of good health be demanded of one gender more than another?

Similar research shows alarming realities about our attitudes towards different ethnic groups, different religions and different sexual orientations. For all the demands that we have to be careful with our language in public and even in surveys, collectively our attitudes remain often quite frightening when confronted with what we actually search for alone and in private.

We Liberals should then halt our righteous indignation and confront ourselves with the real question. Are we Liberals ourselves really less likely to be prejudiced, or are we just more likely to have had the good fortune to be educated to a level where we can just avoid expressing our prejudices in public? The research has the answer to that too…

Sinn Féin needs to learn value of cooperation

Sinn Féin is an electorally clever party but politically novice one. The latest example of this was its clumsy attempt at getting the European Parliament to grant “special EU status” to “the north”.

Firstly, what the European Parliament rejected – by a huge majority, by the way – was Sinn Féin’s ludicrous version of special status (essentially for Northern Ireland to retain membership). This has always been a practical impossibility, and now this has been demonstrated – rendering Sinn Féin campaigns on the issue now void.

Secondly, Sinn Féin can no longer now blame “the Brits” or “the DUP” for failures on this issue. The European Parliament has roundly rejected Sinn Féin’s stance.

Thirdly, it should be but probably will not be noted that what was rejected was not the notion of “special status”, but specifically Sinn Féin’s stance on it. This harms the whole cause.

By compromising with others, and perhaps even learning from others, Sinn Féin could probably have put a motion to the European Parliament on “Special Status” and won. However, it was never going to do so purely on its own terms.

This is a constant failure of Sinn Féin’s. Locally, it demands an Irish Language Act purely on its own terms, rather than seeking a compromise. In fact, a range of other issues – from protecting Human Rights to Same Sex Marriage – could be dealt with if Sinn Féin were willing to compromise with and indeed learn from others.

That is what comes from a movement which is all about making demands and rarely about taking responsibility for actual delivery.

Is the West really poorly served by roads infrastructure?

A recent post over on Slugger attracted a lot of attention because it made an apparently unanswerable case that there is an infrastructural east-west divide in a Northern Ireland. Although I myself have long been strongly supportive of improved road links to the North West, I would suggest the case that the West is particularly poorly served by infrastructure is, at the very least, debatable.

The maps in the linked post appear obvious – all of Northern Ireland’s motorways bar a small stretch of the western M1 and all of Northern Ireland’s railways except the scenic Coleraine-Derry line lie east of the Bann. Obviously, therefore, the West is poorly served?

Well, not necessarily. Here, for example, is the straightforward Google map covering all of Northern Ireland:


Sure, all of the blue seems shifted to the east, but what about the green? If you choose to focus on primary roads rather than specifically motorways, suddenly the West does not seem particularly poorly served at all.

It is true that there is only a limited amount of dual carriageway in the west, but there have been notable expansions to the dual carriageway network there in the past few years, including the extension of the A2 from the outskirts of Derry to the airport and the extension of the M1, as the A4 expressway (the first in Northern Ireland in fact) to Ballygawley. There were also pre-existing stretches which clearly hinted at greater things to come before the Troubles intervened (notably the A29 north of Cookstown). Much of the single carriageway network in the west is in fact superior to that in the west; with their hard shoulders, the A6 single carriageway is better west of Toome than east of it and the A4 in Fermanagh is generally much better than, say, the A3 or even the A7 further east. Therefore, in terms of the basic primary route network, it is far from clear there is a west/east divide.

It should be noted that there are also stretches of road, most obviously between Lisburn and Newry (currently still a basic dual carriageway, not even an expressway), which are blatantly sub-standard but which serve significant social and economic corridors.

Then we come to population density. This again can be visualised here, courtesy of Wikipedia:


The Belfast “Travel to Work” area accounts for less than a sixth of Northern Ireland’s land mass, yet it contains half the population. Not only is it therefore inevitable that the wider (multi-lane) roads are generally found there, but also that money will be spend on freeing up major intersections to improve traffic flow. Railways and expressways require critical mass – of the type found in areas as densely populated as Greater Belfast and the area around it, but not in rural Tyrone. Furthermore, even purely objectively, the above map shows there is at least a case for prioritising the Belfast-Armagh-Dungannon corridor (more or less the old Linen Triangle) ahead of any other – as was done when it received the first motorway.

The above map also demonstrates rather clearly why the A5 corridor (well to the west) was never prioritised before the Irish Government offered specific money towards it. In fact, the priority North-South corridors (linking M2/A6 to M1/A4) would objectively be Antrim-Lisburn and Magherafelt-Cookstown-Dungannon. Building an expressway to link such comparatively small population centres is not redressing a balance, but rather shifting it clearly in favour of the west. There is an economic case for doing that (albeit a highly contested one), but we need to be clear that is what is proposed.

The map also shows why it is difficult to maintain railways in the west. With such a low population density, in practice people need cars to move around from and to precise locations at precise times. With the population thinly spread and cars necessarily predominating, there is simply no chance that mass transit will be widely used. Overlay the current Northern Ireland rail network on the above map and you will see it is far from illogical that it serves where it serves.

On top of all of this is the reality (countered only by a heavily subsidised airport in Derry) that Northern Ireland’s ports of entry are in the east. Again, it is understandable why two ports and two airports are positioned in the Belfast area (and a third main port along the Belfast-Dublin corridor), given that most people and goods are arriving in from the east and, not least as a consequence of that, that is where most people live. Noteworthy also is that Northern Ireland’s main cross-border corridor is (understandably for the same reason) along the east coast to Dublin. This does not just mean that people entering Northern Ireland generally do so (again, to emphasise, for wholly understandable reasons) in the east, but so does freight. To get goods into Northern Ireland requires in practice bringing them in to Belfast (either directly or via Dublin along the east coast) and then distributing from there. It is hardly surprising, in this context, that infrastructure will reflect this reality. Put another way, good infrastructure around Northern Ireland’s ports of entry serves everyone in Northern Ireland, not just those who happen to live near them.

It is interesting, therefore, that we hear plenty about “evidence-based policy-making” but we do very little to explore the basis on which that “evidence” is developed. Clearly people living in the west, and perhaps Nationalists in general, will prefer to promote aspects of the Slugger article linked above to make their case, and they are not wrong to; but people in the east and perhaps Unionists more broadly will prefer to emphasise the points above. The notion that there is one set of “evidence” on which all decisions must be based is flawed. It depends, somewhat, on exactly what your vision is and what you are trying to achieve.

Nevetheless, we can say with certainty that the case that the West is uniquely poorly served by infrastructure in Northern Ireland is less clear objectively than it is to people in the West!

Language or dialect? It doesn’t actually matter…

In Italy, linguists refer to lingue italiane ‘Italian languages’ – plural. This is odd. Travelling around Italy, by and large, the road signs seem to be in a single language, waiters address you in a single language, newspapers are in a single language. So why ‘languages’?

This is complicated further by the fact there are various ‘degrees’ of ‘language-dom’ apparent across the country.

Firstly, let us start with the basics. The language we refer to as ‘Italian‘ is, as noted in the link, in fact based on a conservative form of literary Tuscan. This, notably since the Risorgimento of the mid-19th century, has been gradually accepted across the country as the written and subsequently even spoken standard. All Italians can now speak it, and a majority now do in all contexts (even informally among family).

Secondly, like any large European country, Italy has borders which were (and on the margins in some cases still are) contested, with national and linguistic minorities thus left within the boundaries of the Italian state. Thus, to the northeast there are tens of thousands of Slovene speakers; in the north there is a German speaking majority in South Tyrol; in some northwestern valleys there are speakers of dialects which would be more commonly linked to French rather than Italian; and in the Sardinian town of Alghero an estimated 20,000 people speak Catalan. These are languages with their own standards which are clearly distinct from Standard Italian, which can themselves be written, and which are clearly therefore different languages. So far, so easy.

Thirdly, within Italy, there are other Latin-derived languages with their own clear identity and, broadly, their own standard form. Two of these are particularly noteworthy. First, there is Sardinian, which like Standard Italian derives from Latin but which broke off and became literally isolated much earlier than dialects on the mainland or in Sicily and is thus markedly distinct – few doubt that Sardinian constitutes a different language with regional status. Second, there are Friulian (near the Slovene border) and Ladin (in South Tyrol) which are also derived from Latin but also broke off from Latin earlier than dialects elsewhere in Italy, which were maintained in valleys of mountainous areas (often largely cut off from communities elsewhere), and which have now developed their own place in education and written standards (Friulian and Ladin, alongside Romansch in neighbouring Switzerland, are related to each other more closely than any is to any other Latinate language, but are spoken in distinct regions and thus generally treated separately). Sardinian and Ladin-Friulian constitute a different case, as they are spoken by communities which have been based for over a millennium within the boundaries of what is now the modern Italian state. They are regional minority languages, but they are not languages of national minorities (and thus they have their own standards developed within Italy, rather than based on national or regional languages spoken in greater numbers elsewhere), which requires somewhat different treatment to enable their protection and development.

Thirdly, there are ‘languages’ (usually referred to as such in Italian, but as ‘dialects’ in English) of clear historical importance – notably perhaps Venetian, Sicilian and Neapolitan – which are spoken in some contexts by millions of Italians. These are written informally but have no agreed ‘standard’ as such, nor is there any particular desire for one – by and large, speakers are happy for written communication to be carried out in Standard Italian. These are not, however, ‘dialects of Italian’ – they followed a distinct progression from Latin and therefore do not derive from the same medieval Tuscan origin as Standard Italian (although they are historically and linguistically closer to it than Ladin-Friulian or Sardinian).

Within Italy, there is also a noteworthy linguistic boundary, referred to as the ‘La Spezia-Rimini line’). One marked distinction between traditional speech on either side of this line is that plural forms take -s to the north (including in Friulian-Ladin, Sardinian and Venetian, as well as in all dialects of French, Spanish and Portuguese and all regional Latin-derived languages and dialects in France, Spain and Portugal; thus Spanish lengualenguas ‘language-languages’) but involve amendment of the final vowel to the south of the line (including in Neapolitan, Sicilian and Tuscan and thus in Standard Italian, so lingualingue).

Then there are naturally versions of modern spoken Italian (i.e. generally close to the standard) which include traces of these latter regional ‘languages’. These may properly be referred to as ‘dialects of Italian’ because fundamentally they do, for the most part, derive from the Tuscan-based standard.

Why does this matter to us, say, in Northern Ireland?

It means that within Italy there are various languages and dialects in use: firstly, there are languages spoken more commonly in neighbouring countries with longstanding written standards; second, there are Latin- (but not Tuscan-) based regional languages now in use in education with developing written standards; third, there are regional languages (in fact with much greater numbers of speakers than either of the previous two categories, but whose speakers use them only in limited circumstances) with significant historical relevance but limited modern use and no widely accepted standard written form; all in addition to the Tuscan-based Standard Italian which initially developed primarily as a literary and thus written form. The important point is this: in fact most Italians in informal speech speak along a spectrum between their regional language and Standard Italian, tending increasingly towards the latter with each passing generation.

Which of those are ‘languages’ and which are ‘dialects’ is irrelevant, particularly given the last sentence. In fact, most Italians speak what is clearly a language (Italian) in a dialect form influenced by what they themselves generally regard as another ‘language’. There are at once Italian languages (plural) alongside a single Italian language – and this causes no problem to any Italian.

Bring this back to Northern Ireland and we have some obvious parallels. First, like German in South Tyrol or Slovene near the Adriatic, languages such as Polish or even Mandarin have pre-existing standards in their own country of origin, so although there are rights for speakers of those languages there is no need for a process of ‘linguistic development’ because they are not endangered and have standard forms, dictionaries, grammars and so on. Second, like Sardinian on Sardinia or Friulian-Ladin in mountainous areas of northern Italy, Irish is a native language of the jurisdiction (under severe threat) with a written standard but which does, unlike Polish and others, have a requirement for linguistic development because its use has (or, at least, had) declined and, if Northern Ireland does not take action to protect and promote it, there is a serious chance it will be lost altogether. Third, like Venetian or Neapolitan, Ulster Scots (like Scots across the North Channel) is a historical regional language whose speakers now use it in a spectrum with Standard English tending towards the latter; arguably, its historical importance requires some intervention to protect it, but such intervention would not be the same as is appropriate for Sardinian, Ladin-Friulian or Irish.

Those who are serious about the development of minority languages will reflect on these realities sympathetically as they introduce legislation and policy designed to promote both speakers’ rights and protect languages which may otherwise be lost. Desirable outcomes will perhaps be different in each case, and the approach towards attaining them will inevitably be.

We are, of course, about to find out who is serious and who is not.


Green populists also capable of “fake news”

On 2 July, an article ran in the Sunday Times which was, simply, a lie. In a desperate attempt to block the construction of a road which has already been agreed democratically and accepted legally, environmentalists placed an article suggesting the Conservative-DUP deal meant a road was to be built through “Heaney Country”. This is utter nonsense.

Firstly, the deal has nothing to do with the A6 road at that location whatsoever. Construction of that road was agreed democratically in 2007, funded democratically from 2015, and confirmed legally earlier this year. The deal came after construction started, based on decisions by Executive Ministers, and had and has absolutely nothing to do with the UK Government. The whole premise of the article was false – based on a lie by environmentalists.

Secondly, separately from the Deal, there is an appeal against the legal decision allowing construction to proceed which is, publicly at least, about wildlife (whooper swans, specifically). Yet the article was about “Heaney Country”, an issue irrelevant to that appeal which has long sense been dealt with. So the article had not even attempted to deal with any of the actual current issues.

Thirdly, the Deal may or may not have an impact on the potential construction of an expressway from Derry to Dungiven, which also happens to be part of the A6 but 40 miles to the west of “Heaney Country”. Did no one check this?

Add this to the ludicrous level of coverage being given to a Green candidate mounting a “legal challenge” to the Conservative-DUP deal (to the outcome of a democratic election, in other words), and we see how some environmentalists are in fact fundamentally opposed to representative democracy. If coverage must be given to them, it should be to challenge them on that basic point. Fundamentally, democracy requires us to accept decisions we don’t like. Loyalists were (rightly) mocked for refusing to accept the outcome of a democratic vote in Council in 2012. Why are environmentalists not challenged, and indeed even mocked, on the same basis?

This type of article (and the broad refusal to apply the same basic democratic rules to everyone) gives journalism an appalling name – it is shoddy beyond belief. Most of all, however, it confirms absolutely that “fake news” is by no means confined to the alt-right. Here are environmentalists delivering fakery in a big way, being deliberately deceptive. In fact, as “fake news” goes, this was as fake as I have ever seen. It should be challenged, not promoted.


Did the extremes win this year’s NI elections?

“The Ulster Unionists are finished” wrote one correspondent. “And the SDLP. The extremes won” replied another.

Did they?

Ostensibly they did. I wrote in May 2016 that the goal of the centre parties had to be to reduce the combined DUP/SF vote to below half. In March, it was 56% and 61% of Assembly seats. In June, that was 65% and a complete wipe-out of the centre parties at Westminster. So clearly the Ulster Unionists and SDLP lost and the Alliance Party at best drew.

Certainly one reason Sinn Féin did so well in March was an anti-DUP vote. The exact reverse happened in June (which, by the way, was not a “Unionist surge” versus previous equivalent elections but rather specifically a DUP one). So yes, the DUP and Sinn Féin have won, in the sense that there is no sign of a swing back to their main communal rivals and has not been all century.

Yet all is not completely lost. First of all, it is worth remembering that the DUP and Sinn Féin are not the absolute extremes. Challenges from UKUP, TUV and other anti-compromise Unionists have been seen off completely by the DUP; challenges from the likes of Eirigi and dissident factions have also been seen off by Sinn Féin. People had harder line options but have rejected them decisively.

Moreover, the DUP and Sinn Féin are not what they were. Yes, there are Christian fundamentalists, creationists and outright homophobes in the DUP; yes, there are terrorist apologists who just think Prods should move to Scotland and crazed marxists in Sinn Féin’s ranks. However, they are no longer typical of either party, and decreasingly so. The DUP’s deal with the Conservatives was not one-sided and was politically cute, negotiated by serious players; likewise, Sinn Féin’s response to it has been relatively mature.

The DUP and Sinn Féin represent a type of politics I fundamentally oppose. However, it now falls to those like me to challenge them electorally. As we do so, all is far from lost – because at least the absolute extremes have been successfully marginalised.

To achieve “exactly the same benefits” as Single Market, you have to stay in it

The competition for “Most ludicrous policy on Brexit” is a stiff one, but it is now almost certainly led by the Labour Party. Its stance that the UK must leave the EU but retain exactly the same benefits as Single Market membership is just, well, silly. There is only one way to retain the exact same benefits of Single Market membership, and that is to stay in the Single Market.

What is more, remaining in the Single Market will require an annual payment, on which there will be no rebate. In other words, it will cost more or less the same as outright EU membership – with less influence.

Labour could quite easily square this circle. It should demand a referendum on the terms of exit negotiated, versus remaining in the EU. That would at least give the public the choice of supporting the “exact same benefits”, now that leaving has focused our minds on what they are, by voting to retain them through retaining membership.

Sinn Fein itself has way to go on “respect agenda”

I was lucky enough to be called into BBC Talkback on Wednesday week ago for what presenter William Crawley described as a “very civilised discussion” on language and culture, particularly with regards to the Irish Language Act.

What was interest was the response on social media. This involved widespread mockery of Ulster Scots, essentially for being too close to English to be regarded as a language. Most notably, this mockery often came from official Sinn Fein representatives or accounts.

Let us, first of all, address that concern. As anyone who speaks several languages knows, sometimes phrases are close or even identical. “La luna grande con la costa verde” is good Spanish, and good Italian. “My pen is in my hand” is good English, and good Afrikaans. Inevitably, given its proximity to English, even good Scots will also be quite similar in many respects (not unlike Irish and Scottish Gaelic). This is a simple linguistic fact, which needs to be accepted by all sides engaged in minority language development. (And, by the way, I never once on the programme insisted that Ulster Scots should be considered as having “language” status, merely that there was a case for it and that it should be afforded respect either way. Respect requires understanding, and understanding requires respect.)

So, to start with, anyone mocking this simple linguistic fact is in fact betraying their own ignorance. No one who is multilingual or has genuine command for and respect for language itself would engage in such behaviour.

Then, of course, anyone engaged in such mockery is also engaged in basic disrespect, both for the nature of language itself and for Ulster Scots.

Peter Robinson, former DUP Leader, wrote a fundamentally unhelpful analysis earlier in the week on his Facebook page, but suddenly his analysis was demonstrated to have a grain of truth. Sinn Fein activists are busy demanding respect, but are unable to give it. This is outright hypocrisy.

It should be noted that many prominent Sinn Fein respresentatives and any Irish language activist I know would reject such mockery, and would be saddened by it (I have no doubt that Janet Muller, who appeared with me, would agree). Nevertheless, if they want respect they have to ensure it is offered.

Meanwhile mockery of anything, including Ulster Scots and indeed Irish, is an absolute right in a free society. However, as ever, it should be based on an understanding of the issues and facts. Such an understanding takes effort and time. I am sorry that so few people seem willing to take that effort and time to be able to engage knowledgeably in issues around language and culture (and even appropriate mockery of them). That is, perhaps, the crux of our problem here.

Big challenge ahead is Health

Due to my work, I write very little here about Health issues.

However, it is a simple matter of fact that Health is the biggest devolved Budget in Northern Ireland, and reforming it is the biggest challenge. Whatever emerges this week, therefore, there must be political clarity about how Health reform proceeds, and there must be no reasonable prospect of the political direction of travel being overturned.

I am doubtful, sadly, that this is manageable. The difficulty with all politics being local is that overarching regional issues are very hard to put through. This is troubling.

We will watch what emerges with interest and hope it is in the interests of patients and Health workers.