“Protecting the Union” not the same as “protecting Unionists”

What is interesting about so much of the non-DUP Unionist reaction to the highlighting of the Irish Language in Northern Ireland is how often the negative response to it is framed as “protecting the Union”.

However, what too many Unionists really mean when they use the term “protecting the Union” is in fact “protecting Unionists”. What they are doing is determining that Northern Ireland is a dichotomy between Unionists and Nationalists and that any gain for one must automatically be a loss for the other.

Yet this misses Unionism’s profound problem. In the 2011 census only 48% ticked “British” (and for that matter only 48% ticked “Protestant identity”). In March 2017 Unionism lost its Stormont majority and even in the so-called “bounce back” election three months later only 49% voted for a Unionist of any description. Unionists are a minority and Unionism is a minority interest. 

Therefore it should long since have been obvious that if you really want to “protect the Union”, you have to move beyond “protecting Unionists”. Indeed, focusing solely on Unionists is outright damaging to the cause of making the case for protecting the Union, as doing so omits the majority of people in Northern Ireland.

If Unionists are serious about “protecting the Union” their appeal will have to broaden. They will need to show respect for other identities in Northern Ireland, and they will have to find ways to facilitate expression of those identities.

Remarkably, the one party which is showing signs of having worked that out is the DUP. Its expressed view that the Irish Language is not a threat to the Union, which is a million miles from past positions, demonstrates at least an awareness that Northern Ireland in the UK can – and indeed must – accommodate more than just the (minority) Unionist identity.

It should be emphasised that it remains entirely reasonable for Unionists to oppose an “Irish Language Act as proposed by Sinn Féin [in 2015]”; even Sinn Féin itself has stated publicly that there were some problems with it. However, by addressing the issue sympathetically while others snipe from the sidelines, the DUP leadership can do more than restore the trust needed to get an Executive up and running. It can actually go a long way to protecting the Union.


More needed to hear reasonable viewpoints

Of all the troubles which afflict the Western World currently, one strikes me to be the comparative absence of reasonable viewpoints from the airwaves and social media.

Last week, for example, a backbench and irrelevant Conservative MP made a comment that only a millionaire-by-family-not-skill could make about food backs. Cue mass outrage. The problem is, that the mass outrage itself gave him further coverage. This in turn enhances his political capital, to the extent that this man with no real life experience is being talked of as a potential Prime Minister. He is being talked of in this way ahead of, well, reasonable and knowledgeable people. And that is a problem.

The problem is partly to do with those creating the mass outrage. Why not just ignore him? Is a barrel load of tweets really likely to make him change his mind? In fact it will likely only entrench views – including among those who had some sympathy with him (who will now, inevitably, have lots of sympathy with him).

There is an issue here also for what is described still as the “mainstream” media. They too like to highlight extreme views, often pitting two extreme views against each other. What about reasonable, knowledgeable, well-thought-out views? And what about the people who hold them? In fact, this dash to the extremes merely sidelines (ahem, even discriminates against) people who have educated themselves, have knowledge, and behave reasonably.

It is a serious challenge, and one which needs to be addressed by all of us.

PM about to unleash sheer insanity?

The Prime Minister is about to make a major intervention on Brexit, unilaterally, and thus the great probability is it will be outright insane.

Instead of leaving open options such as remaining in the EEA or EFTA, she is likely to do the precise opposite, pinning the UK to a position of absolute isolation.

Even many Leave groups oppose such craziness. Firstly, it is unwise for the UK to isolate itself completely – cutting itself off entirely from Europe and thus, in the end, managing trade based on deals secured purely in political desperation. Secondly, it is ludicrous to limit your negotiating position to such a degree.

Absolutely on the contrary, the UK should in fact announce it will be seeking an association agreement with EFTA. That would leave all options – from full EEA to Canadian free trade – on the table to be negotiated.

The only hope in the UK Government’s craziness is that it will turn the populace off Brexit altogether as the cost of living soars and people simply lose any faith in the Government’s capacity to deliver it.

What a mess.

Right to remove public sector pay cap

I am not renowned for my sympathy with raising public sector pay, but there are now clear reasons to do so at a rate above (even well above) 1%.

As a consequence of Brexit, Sterling has devalued and in turn the cost of living (not least given the decline of over 10% against the dollar and, thus, against oil) has risen. This particularly hits those who are in an inflexible position – most obviously those on fixed incomes.

With real inflation at 3.9%, wages in all sectors need to rise at well over 1% to keep the standard of living even close to where it was before the referendum.

Furthermore, there is a penalty for not doing this. It is already the case that Agency staff can be paid up to half as much again (in practical terms) as those in full-time public service work. If pay does not even come close to keeping up with inflation, the temptation to take the risk of Agency work just becomes higher. This in turn makes the cost of delivering public services higher than it would be if you simply paid those in permanent direct employment higher wages.

The same applies to business of course, but by and large business has reacted to some extent. The public-private pay gap in Northern Ireland is still too high, but having once been over 40% it is now set to fall below 20% by end decade – still the highest gap in the UK, but not anywhere near as ludicrous as it once was.

It is essential that any government is in position to respond to changing circumstances, and on public sector pay that is what it needs to do. Not least since it is its own idiocy which is causing the cost of living to rise…

If £1b deal is “off”, DUP should bring down Government on Withdrawal Bill

The Withdrawal Bill is so utterly appalling that I suspect the reason people are not out protesting about it night after night is they simply cannot believe it. The notion of seizing primary legislation powers by Ministers who do not even command a majority would shame a Banana Republic.

Of course, this raises an obvious question. Since those Ministers do not command a majority, how can the Bill which seizes those powers be capable of commanding one? The answer is the DUP.

The DUP has a deal with the Conservatives that it will back the Government on confidence, supply, security and Brexit in return for extra spending (around £1 billion) in Northern Ireland over the next two years. Yet it became apparent yesterday that that spending has not been put into UK Treasury estimates. (Implicitly but clearly, it is being withheld until devolution is restored, but that is not the point here.)

One DUP MP followed the logic. If the money is not forthcoming, then the deal is “off”, he noted publicly.

If the deal is “off”, the DUP has no business giving the Government a majority to seize power for primarily legislation to a Cabinet made up solely of a minority party. Furthermore, this is not a confidence bill – voting against it does not bring down the Government, nor in fact does it block Brexit.

We are about to find out whether the DUP Parliamentary team has the courage to stand up to the Conservatives when deals are “off”. The answer will tell us much.

Which is the best NI team ever?

Northern Ireland’s comfortable 2-0 victory over the Czech Republic (a country with over five times the population which is no stranger to the latter stages of major competitions) last week was the fifth in a row (a clear record, and completed without conceding a goal) and brought up four years without a competitive home defeat and two years without conceding a competitive home goal. It also ensured second place in the group and a likely playoff spot for the World Cup (Northern Ireland is currently the best second-placed team other than European champions Portugal).

It does not need repeated that this feat is made all the more incredible by the fact it has been accomplished through sheer teamwork. Northern Ireland’s best players are mid-table in the Premier League and some are fully two divisions below. It does raise another interesting question, however: is this the best Northern Ireland team ever?

The assumption for the last two years has been probably not, despite qualifying for the knock-out stages of the European Championship. There are no truly world-class players – no Blanchflowers, Bests, or Jennings. However, such is the scale of the continued good form, do we need to re-analyse?

The team captained by Danny Blanchflower would be regarded by many as the best Northern Ireland team ever. It qualified for the World Cup by defeating Italy and then reached the quarter-final (coincidentally after drawing with West Germany, the defending champions; and then beating Czechoslovakia, who reached the final four years later, in a playoff). That perhaps still counts as the best achievement ever by a Northern Ireland team, although it is noteworthy that the game in general was nothing like as global then. Added to the argument against deeming this the best NI team ever would be the fact it was effectively a one-off achievement; a victory over a fine England team at Wembley the previous year aside, the form was not really maintained before or after.

In 1998 I was helping at short notice with an English lesson at a school near Cologne. At the end of the lesson, the teacher asked where I was from. In those days, the response “Northern Ireland” drew a relatively typical response along the lines of guns or other general ignominy, but this case was unusual. He responded instantly with the words “Harry Gregg” – it turned out he had in fact as a youth followed the West German team to Sweden for the 1958 World Cup and was in attendance at the group game with Northern Ireland, in which an inspired Gregg was the star in a 2-2 draw.

I suspect, therefore, most NI fans would regard the 1980-6 team as the best ever. It is of course more recent in the memory, but it also enjoyed success over a longer period. There was a British championship as a warm-up, then there was the run to within one game of the semi-final of the 1982 World Cup in Spain (with an epic victory over the hosts en route), there was the narrow miss in qualification of the then eight-team European Championship in 1984 (with wins home and away against West Germany in the group) alongside the last British Championship, and then there was the nail-biting qualification for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. Throughout this period, Northern Ireland never lost at home to a foreign team. The team then contained regulars in club sides such as Arsenal and Manchester United and it was far from unusual to see a Northern Irish player win a European trophy or score the winner in the Cup Final, so there is little doubt it was the best group of players Northern Ireland ever had (comparative to the time). Against it would be the argument that it did not quite match the singular achievement of 1958, and again it is noteworthy that the game was less global (sides from Scandinavia, Turkey or Portugal were expected to be dispatched with ease back then).

I attended my first ever international match in November 1985 at Wembley, the one in which Northern Ireland qualified courtesy of a Jennings-inspired scoreless draw. The famous interview with the late Alan McDonald (“Come and see me!”) was unknown to me for two decades after, as having been present in the stadium I did not see it!

This then brings us to the current team. There is a sense this week that it all started in 2005 with a World Cup qualifying win over Beckham’s England, which was followed by a narrow miss in qualifying for Euro 2008 (including an epic 3-2 win over eventual champions Spain). Nevertheless, although that raised hopes a little, the truth is this is a separate team from that one, having emerged since a humiliating (and now unthinkable) loss in Luxembourg.

As established above, it is not the greatest group of players, nor has it (yet) delivered quite the achievements of the previous two candidate teams. Nevertheless, what it is achieving is being accomplished in a much more competitive era and is therefore arguably even more remarkable. As this is being done through team spirit and hard work, there is a case for saying this is the best Northern Ireland team ever.

As fans of the previous two candidate teams will tell you, enjoy it while it lasts! But what a fabulous team it really is.


Citizens’ Assembly idea stands on own merit

One proposal to break the deadlock with the devolved institutions emerging primarily from the Green Party was the notion of a “Citizens’ Assembly”, an idea long supported on these pages given it has clearly worked for Ireland.

It is worth emphasising that a “Citizens’ Assembly” (I prefer to the term “Convention” in the case of Northern Ireland to avoid confusion) would not solve the problem, which is that we lack an Executive (i.e. Ministers).

Nevertheless, such a “Convention” has merit anyway. This is because elected politicians, understandably, are often unwilling to take risks for change for fear of falling foul of their own electorate – voters will always be more vocal about what they are losing than what they stand to gain, particularly if a specifically local issue is involved. A “Citizen’s Convention” would in fact give them a better idea of what people think and how far they are prepared to go for change.

It is certainly worth exploring regardless of what happens over the next few days and months – but it does not solve the actual problem directly before us.

We need to talk about alcohol

I am a non-drinker for the basic reason that I just don’t like the stuff.

Nevertheless, it is an indisputable fact that this also makes me considerably healthier and also a considerably lower burden on society. We need to begin to talk about this more generally than just with regard to driving.

What is important here is, as noted recently, we have done this with driving (at least at night). Where once it was entirely tolerable to down ten pints and drive home, and the consequent deaths and injuries caused were just seen as the way things were, we eventually decided that this was no longer acceptable. Over decades we have reached the stage where drink-driving, at least driving immediately after drinking alcohol, is simply not socially acceptable at all.

So why is getting on an aeroplane drunk acceptable?

A recent BBC documentary showed reliable evidence that one out of five airline cabin crew have been physically assaulted by drunk passengers. More worrying still, it also showed that female cabin crew deem sexual harassment by passengers to be just “part of the job” – something which just happens. How on earth is it acceptable that taking on one particular career will present you with a high chance of being physically assaulted and a fair chance of being sexually harassed? Is this something we are all just supposed to allow?

On top of this we have had recent reports of drink-driving in daytime or on the job (in one case, horrendously, killing eight); of over 100 students at Queen’s reporting they have been subject of sexual assault; of the cost of alcohol in everything from criminal damage to long-term health complexities. The cost, more often than not, is borne by entirely innocent victims – who see anything from flights delayed to domestic violence or outright sexual harassment on the job imposed upon them. If tobacco did all this we would be on to it in a flash – indeed, we now mock the days, not that long ago, when smokers were seen as cool. So why is alcohol still a bit of a joke?

There is in fact a very specific problem with alcohol, as noted in another recent BBC documentary. One specific effect of alcohol is it overrides our “stop” function (more or less, as this is referred to more often, it removes our inhibitions). The fun element is this may, for example, encourage us to get up and sing karaoke when we would never do so sober; but when it comes to everything from rowdiness on planes to outright sexual or physical assault of staff, then it really becomes very serious.

The tendency is to deal with this one issue at a time. Having dealt with alcohol and nighttime driving, we may now move on slowly to restrict access to planes for drunk people (Northern Ireland already restricts access to public transport on this basis). Yet even this, while it would be a fair and welcome move, is only tackling one of the negative social consequences of alcohol at a time. People who would profess themselves appalled by sexual harassment of cabin crews will nevertheless accept the support of anyone from airlines to hospitality lobbyists who rely on alcohol sales, when in fact the latter leads inevitably to the former (via that loss of inhibition).

Of course, making this general and obvious point will not make anyone electorally popular. Yet we have done it with tobacco and in some specific instances with alcohol. We can no longer tolerate the broader and inevitable negative social consequences (as well as the detrimental impact on long-term health) of alcohol without a broader and more meaningful conversation about just how serious these are and what reasonable action we need to take – action taken not to deal with them once they occur, but to prevent them in the first place.

Remainers should not endorse EU position at every turn

One of the things that frustrates Leavers and broad neutrals about harder line Remainers is that Remainers appear to back the EU position in the Brexit negotiations so readily.

It is absolutely reasonable to point out that no one is in fact responsible for delivering what Leave voters wanted. It is further entirely fair to add that the UK seems peculiarly unprepared and it is a simple fact of life that it has very few negotiating cards. It is important to point out that you cannot, in fact, have your cake and eat it.

Nevertheless, promoting all of those lines is not the same as supporting the EU negotiating position at every turn. It is essential for all of us that the negotiations come to a satisfactory conclusion and merely saying “I told you so” does not assist that process.

It is worth challenging the EU’s position as well as the UK’s. If we look at the EU’s position, how sensible is it, really?

My own view is that some of it is very sensible. The door has been left open to the UK remaining in; there has been a far more realistic acceptance that any final Brexit deal will be lose-lose (the EU does not deny that it will lose too if the UK proceeds to leave); and there has been a recognition that the UK is important to Europe in general for many reasons.

On the other hand, some aspects of the EU position are less reasonable and arguably outright bizarre. Firstly, there has been no sense within the EU institutions of questioning what they have done to make their second biggest member head for the exit door. Secondly, it is odd to make the details of an “exit bill” so prominent so early, as this surely depends somewhat on what the UK’s future relationship with it; and thirdly, similarly, the exact requirements for the Irish border depend again on what the UK’s relationship with the Single Market and the Customs Union, among other things.

Therefore, the EU’s positions and priorities are far from perfect. On all of our behalves, regardless of how or if we voted in the referendum, we do need to challenge both sides fairly to drive the best possible outcome for us all.

Where now? (But let’s not beat ourselves up too much…)

Where now for government in Northern Ireland?

One of the problems with a lot of the debate around the current breakdown is that it does not start from the beginning. The beginning is always a good place to start!

So what, fundamentally, is the problem?

The specific problem is that Northern Ireland lacks an Executive (a devolved government). This is partly because it has a unique and peculiar requirement (in practice) that the two largest parties must be in (and indeed must lead) that Executive – nowhere else in the world has this. This has the practical consequence that both the DUP and Sinn Fein must be content in order for a government to be formed – if either is not, at any time, it may opt simply not to have one.

Fundamentally, therefore, if an Executive is to be formed under the current system both the DUP and Sinn Fein will have to be happy. One of the realities of negotiation, however, is that the fewer issues you leave on the table the harder it is to achieve a negotiated deal. Currently, the DUP does not want a standalone Irish Language Act but Sinn Fein absolutely requires one – there is no way around that, so the fact we seem down to a single issue is problematic. For a solution to this, the reality of deal-making is that other issues need to be opened up so that both “sides” can show clear wins to their own supporters. (Underlying all of this is a distinct lack of trust between the two parties – in many ways an Irish Language Act is not the problem, but rather represents the problem.)

For reference, I think the DUP and Sinn Fein will still come to a deal – although it may be a way away yet. Arlene Foster’s speech on Thursday shows the DUP has moved its support base on the issue of front-loading Irish language legislation, as is necessary to rebuilding trust. Sinn Fein had to reject the idea of re-forming the Executive immediately because it recognises that, as far as its support base is concerned, the next crash will be terminal so restoration has to be on a firmer footing. The route to formation of an Executive is clear to both parties, but they do need to bring their supporters with them. In summary, frustrating though it is, time is required to ensure not only that an Executive can be formed, but that it runs smoothly.

If after all of this it proves impossible to form an Executive under the current system, the first obvious thing to do is change the system so that no single party can simply choose not to have devolution whenever it feels like it. An obvious alternative is a qualified majority system. In practice, this would mean that any coalition of parties could form an Executive provided it could pass a Programme and a Budget – which, given the realities of the Petition of Concern, would mean that it would require the active consent of a majority and at least the passive assent of another sixth or so (totalling 61/90 MLAs not opposing). Inevitably this would mean such an Executive would be cross-community and it is worth noting it could be formed in any manner, allocating extra ministries by negotiation to any designation which would otherwise be underrepresented under the current d’Hondt allocation system. (In practice, currently, the most obvious route assuming no DUP-SF option would be a DUP-SDLP-Alliance coalition not opposed by the UUP and Greens; another option would be an SF-UU-Alliance-Green coalition; in theory an SDLP-UU-Alliance coalition with some Green/Independent support could stand if either the DUP or Sinn Fein opted not actively to oppose it, but this is of course unlikely). The Assembly would then operate as currently.

Should this not be an option, an outside alternative would be a “Commission Executive”; an Executive of experts in each departmental field appointed by the Secretary of State, perhaps lacking some overall Executive powers but holding all the powers of departmental Ministers. The Assembly could in fact operate as currently, even passing legislation where necessary, although in practice it would no doubt tend towards more of a scrutiny function with Committee sessions more relevant than plenaries.

A commonly suggested further option then is a form of Direct Rule with Assembly scrutiny. This is not quite as straightforward as it sounds. Direct Rule Ministers would ultimately be accountable to Westminster (and it is Westminster which would pass any legislation required, at least in theory). However, there could be a role for scrutiny specifically by Committees of elected MLAs (it is hard to see any role for plenary sessions), which would turn their role (at least temporarily) into more like that of London Assembly members. The concern about this is that it would become semi-permanent, with MLAs never again inclined to take over the role of Ministers having to take responsibility for unpopular decisions. However, the Direct Rule Ministers would always be able to make the straightforward point that if they are doing such a bad job, MLAs may always form an Executive of their own; so this option is not without merit, particularly if the genuine issue is concern about performing Ministerial functions through complex Health reforms and the future UK-EU and NI-EU relationship.

We have to at each stage be clear that we have a correctly elected Assembly – the one the people chose. Electing another one is an option if the two main parties feel they need a mandate to re-start an Executive, but not otherwise – creating further division (an inevitable electoral consequence) is the last thing we need. Removing MLAs and closing the whole thing down is not a serious option either and not something a UK Government determined to avoid long-term Direct Rule will likely countenance (not least because it would take a long time to re-start). So some role for the correctly elected Assembly needs to be found, not least because the operation at least of ad hoc Committees would help rebuild cross-party relationships (as is necessary).

To do this alongside a correctly functioning Executive of some kind is then an urgent task of government. It may be at this stage that a gradual restoration is the only type of restoration available – although as noted above, never give up hope.

Nor should we beat ourselves up too much about this. It is often complex in divided societies to form coalition governments (Belgium went over a year and half without one), and we should be thankful that neither of the main parties has caused absolute breakdown.

Where there is a will (and, contrary to widespread public opinion, I believe there is) there is a way. Eventually…