Category Archives: Politics

Could Northern Ireland remain within the EU Customs Union?

As every week goes by, the case for “Brexit” weakens despite the referendum result. Sterling has declined markedly; the cost of administering Brexit alone is ridiculous; “Leave” Ministers are at war with each other. The only thing they agree upon is that UK passports should be blue – something which could happen anyway while remaining an EU member state (the EU has no law on passport colours).

Another issue they are divided on is the EU Customs Union, and this is crucial for the island of Ireland. If the UK were to  remain within the EU Customs Union (something which is quite possible outside the EU and would be very wise, given that it maintains the UK’s current international Trade Deals and no other Trade Deals would be available at time of withdrawal from the EU), then there would be no “hard border”. The only necessity would be the occasional spot check (easily done between Northern Ireland and Great Britain); very little else would need to change and the border could remain more or less as is.

Should the UK leave the EU Customs Union, it would not be impossible for Northern Ireland to remain effectively within it. It could be agreed that customs checkpoints would be applied only to goods travelling between Great Britain and the EU and vice-versa – but any arriving in Northern Ireland or going from Northern Ireland to either would not be subject to customs. Northern Ireland may have to offer something for this special status – for example, it could offer to maintain (as it is perfectly entitled to do at devolved level) all EU trading and employment standards.

There would be certain quirks to this. For example, this somewhat nerdy post from two years ago would suddenly become relevant – it would probably be necessary to distinguish clearly Northern Irish vehicles from those elsewhere in the UK, best done by adopting the system I proposed then (with the initial letter “I” in all cases) in order to avoid confusion around personalised plates – all vehicles moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain or vice-versa would now be re-registered obligatorily, not just optionally.

These are the types of things we have to consider to maximise our opportunities over the coming years and months.

Ludicrous “Greenland” fantasy doesn’t help the “experts”

The now gloriously forgotten Michael Gove became famed during the referendum campaign for the line that “People are fed up with experts”.

It was nonsense populism from someone who should have known better, and who was thus buying into the ludicrous notion that one person’s ignorance is equal to another’s knowledge. It isn’t. This notion is destroying democracy.

Sometimes the experts do not do themselves any favours, however. Since the referendum, one fanciful idea has been doing the rounds, backed by some academics who should know a lot better, that somehow Scotland and Northern Ireland could remain in the EU while the rest of the UK leaves.

This notion is so idiotic, politically and practically, it is hard to know where to begin with it.

Firstly, the idea is based on Greenland leaving the EU while Denmark remained in during the 1980s. However, they tend to miss the point that Greenland is not part of Denmark! Although it does send representation to the Copenhagen Parliament, legally and practically Greenland’s relationship to Denmark is almost identical to that of the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man to the UK. There is simply no parallel to Scotland and Northern Ireland, which are actually part of the UK.

Secondly, the UK voted to leave the EU. The ridiculous “reverse Greenland” idea means that in fact the UK would remain a member state, with England and Wales leaving the way Greenland did. This is ridiculous in theory because European and foreign affairs are not devolved; and in practice because it is just ridiculous. Nicola Sturgeon and Martin McGuinness going to European Council meetings to represent the UK?

Thirdly, it is practically nonsense anyway. Outside the EU, England and Wales could choose to leave the customs union and single market, meaning border checks and separate immigration policy within the UK. If you have to show your passport and open your boot every time you pass through Gretna Green, what exactly would be the point of the UK existing?!

The fact that Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain is relevant. The task for Leavers is to come up with a realistic proposal to withdraw from the EU without breaking up the UK. There is a case to be made for the UK remaining within the EU on the basis that the proposal to leave was not carried in a majority of constituent countries of the UK. However, ultimately, either (all of) the UK withdraws from the EU, or it doesn’t.

And if the UK withdraws from the EU, the only route for Scotland and Northern Ireland to remain in the EU is to leave the UK.

Let us just be clear about the basic practical political and legal facts. (And beware of people posing as “experts” who lack even basic expertise!)

Labour debacle remains far more serious than most realise

The Conservatives got a jibe in during the week that they were trying to unite the party while Labour was splitting up even among itself. We will see just how cocky the Tories are a year or two from now when they have collapsed the economy pursuing a completely pointless exit from the EU, but their point stands.

What is happening in the Labour Party is being described in terms of “splits” and “realignment”) – standard political talk, in other words. However, it is far from standard. The party’s MPs, activists and supporters are now three entirely different sets of people and the consequence is that the party has ceased to be a serious competitor for government.

Corbyn’s Labour is a mere left-wing pressure group now. This has serious ramifications for the Left, and for politics in the UK in general.

The failure of the Corbynites’ analysis is simple: they believe Labour is a left-wing party. However, it was never that. It was a centre-left party – i.e. a home for everyone from centre to left, not just left. Once it ceases to be that, it cannot seriously compete for office at Westminster. This does not mean it loses relevance completely – it will continue to compete for urban city halls across England and Wales and perhaps for office in devolved government in the latter – but it does mean it is not a political influencer at the same level as the Conservatives.

Indeed, as the Conservatives fail to deliver the “Hard Brexit” many thought they were voting for, UKIP will make a comeback to the same level of influence as Labour – and with a similar level of coherence.

The game has changed. Quite what the outcome of that change is, is anyone’s guess. But it will be a long time before anyone even slightly to the left of centre will be occupying Number 10 – and all democrats should be concerned about that.

Questions over SF’s “industrial wages”

Sinn Fein’s accounts came in for scrutiny this month. Among some peculiarities were the fact (arising logically from them) that its press team cannot possibly be being paid the living wage (thus Sinn Fein is acting illegally by paying slave wages), and that it is simply not apparent where its MLAs (and by extension TDs) pay in their contribution to the party which would mean they were taking home merely the “average industrial wage”.

To be clear, as it is not secret, many parties ask their elected representatives to make a contribution back to the party, on the basis that that elected representative would not have been elected without the party label. This sum, which operates a little like a traditional “tithe”, of course then appears in the party’s accounts.

Sinn Fein claims that it uses this system, and that its elected representatives make a contribution which means that, in effect, they earn only the “average industrial wage”. Already, however, it has become apparent that this is not the case – in fact, Sinn Fein MLAs take home the average pre-tax industrial wage – i.e. several thousand pounds more each year than the average industrial worker takes home after tax. This sounds reasonable to me, except that Sinn Fein should not claim its MLAs take home the average industrial wage when they do not.

However, it is also unclear from the party’s accounts that any money is paid by MLAs into the party’s purse, as that money simply does not appear on the balance sheet. To make matters worse, in fact the sum MLAs would have had to contribute to the party’s funds in order to take home the “average industrial wage” is in fact more than the party received at all, from all sources. In other words, Sinn Fein’s own accounts show that its total income was less than the contribution due from each MLA to add up to each taking home the “average industrial wage”. Since more than half its claimed income was accounted for, this would appear to indicate MLAs simply are not contributing to the party at all. More likely, of course, is that they are contributing to a different bank account (the one which, perhaps, pays the press office’s real salaries which also do not add up, as noted above). However, surely the voting public should know about this?

It is all a little odd, and the days when Sinn Fein did not get asked such awkward questions have surely passed in this glorious new Executive versus Opposition era. Perhaps a coherent Opposition response would be a good start, Messrs Nesbitt and Eastwood?

What exactly is wrong with the UK’s current trade deals?

One of the main “Leave” claims during the referendum campaign was that leaving the EU would enable the UK to “do its own trade deals”.

To be specific, leaving the EU Customs Union (which is not obligatory even if the UK leaves the EU) would mean this.

However, that raises an obvious question. What precisely is wrong with the trade deals the UK currently has as an EU member state?

(I notice, by the way, that no one attempted to answer last week’s question, which was: What happens if the other party in the trade deal with the UK simply breaks it unilaterally?)

102 years on, we have learned nothing from WW1

The lights went out across Europe this day 102 years ago. A generation never saw them lit again.

The tragedy is not just the 17 million lives lost in that war and the 50 million lost in the one directly consequent to it. The tragedy is we have not learned.

I wish I could disagree with Tobias Stone in this article about how history is bound to repeat itself. Indeed, I have written similar myself, though not as effectively.

I am not by nature particularly a pessimist, but 102 years on the lights are about to go out again. Post-factual eras where people ignore those who actually know what they are talking about and turn to strong men always turn out the same way – in revolution and war. We can only hope it will not take as long this time for the light to return.

Northern Ireland must prepare for sovereignty

David McWilliams was making mischief again in his recent article on the simple fact Northern Ireland does not pay for itself.

I do not agree with all of his working, but I do agree with his ultimate conclusion – not only does Northern Ireland not pay its way, but there is an ever dwindling number of people willing to pay for it.

This is yet another reason the DUP was so foolish to play footsie with English Nationalists six weeks ago; and why it is so ludicrous that Irish Nationalists cannot (indeed, refuse to come up with) a workable plan for Irish unity. In other words, public opinion is shifting against, both in the jurisdiction which does pay for Northern Ireland and in the alternative one which would.

After all, when there is an ever decreasing amount of money to go around, it does not matter who you are, why would you hand it to another jurisdiction for no apparent gain?

The DUP and other idiots completely forgot to ask why anyone would pay £200m a week to Northern Ireland (particularly when you have just voted to stop paying exactly that amount to the EU)? Would that money, currently raised from English taxpayers, not be better spend on the NHS in England? Most residents of England would not take too long to give a decisive answer to that one!

So Northern Ireland can no longer reliably depend on England’s taxpayers’ money; nor on southern Ireland’s. It is going to need to move towards a position where public spending and welfare in Northern Ireland is allocated on the basis of revenue (taxes) raised in Northern Ireland.

In an increasingly crazy world, Northern Ireland needs to prepare to look after itself. It needs to prepare for sovereignty, in other words.

About these “Trade Deals”…

… if the UK does “its own Trade Deal” with, say, the United States or China, tell me this: what happens in practice if the United States or China simply doesn’t adhere to it?

Promise of PfG will be lost without NI Civil Service reform

A number of third sector lobbyists in Northern Ireland are getting very excited about the Programme for Government Framework document, which was generally agreed by all the parties before the Assembly Election and upon which consultation closed on 22 July. Unfortunately, this excitement is unlikely to be matched by the practice, because Northern Ireland’s bureaucracy remains fundamentally and culturally incapable of managing reform – not least reform of itself.

The Framework consists of outcomes and indicators (with measurements) and theory behind it is an “outcomes-based approach” (as opposed, in effect, to a “functions-based approach”). To try to give an obvious example of what this may mean: in future, legislation may set out “statutory outcomes” for public bodies to achieve, rather than “statutory functions”, in theory thus devolving considerably more power to the public body to determine how those outcomes are best delivered in practice. Notably, that body would be free to use any resource to deliver the outcome, because it no longer holds functions as such – for example, hearing tests could be devolved to Boots or Specsavers, rather than GP surgeries or Health Centres. Fundamentally, as long as the outcome is achieved, the means of achieving it are irrelevant. It would also have an impact on budgeting – budgets may be devolved outwards, enabling greater control over small sums of money to be handed to more junior public servants or even to local community groups or social enterprises.

This approach was first adopted in the US State (“Commonwealth”) of Virginia in 2000, and was introduced in Scotland in 2007.

So far, so good. However, there are two significant problems with it – politicians and civil servants.

Politicians continue to believe that merely because they have a “mandate”, they somehow know best. Actually, last month’s referendum and the general electoral chaos ongoing across Europe and the United States should show us that politicians have failed fundamentally to relate to people’s lives and grasp the social challenges which lie ahead in a post-economic collapse world. Parked in a bubble, few really have any practical sense of what is required, and thus the outcomes and indicators are bland and often miss the point.

Civil servants too, particularly in Northern Ireland, seem to be culturally incapable of moving beyond process. Even basic, easy projects – for example in services for ethnic minority children or to prevent diabetes – are held up catastrophically by endless meetings, paperwork and, frankly, holidays. Even now, with the chaos of “Brexit” looming and the severe potential impact on Northern Ireland, the notion of restricting leave or any such thing will not have entered anyone’s head. Some might suggest Northern Ireland’s bureaucracy seems to allow itself ten months of process, two months of no process, and no months of actual delivery every year. Is that how Singapore got so successful?

Hence, the Framework falls at the first hurdle – the outcomes themselves. A staggering fourteen of these have been identified, and it does not seem to have occurred to anyone that some of them overlap and others are not actually outcomes at all (a problem, when the whole thing is meant to be “outcomes-based”).

For example, only a politician or civil servant could seriously believe “high quality public services” are an outcome. Indeed, the fact it appears under “outcomes” shows that the whole point of an “outcomes-based approach” has been missed. The issue is not “service” or function, it is delivery and outcome.

Many more are essentially the same outcome – a “strong, competitive economy” will inevitably also be an “innovative, creative society” and create “better jobs” for “more people”; a society where we “respect diversity” will surely be one in which we “respect each other”; and it will surely be impossible to create a “place where people want to live, work and visit” without being an “welcoming, outward-looking society”. There is no need for these to be separate. Indeed, it is essential for any “outcomes-based approach” to identify which of those phrases are “drivers” and which are actual “outcomes”.

The truth is the whole Framework has been developed by politicians and civil servants with the only attempt at engagement (and even then not a particularly meaningful one) occurring after development. In fact, experts from the real world (not the one politicians or civil servants inhabit, as noted above) should have been involved from the outset. They would immediately have spotted the overlaps and ill-definitions in the so-called “outcomes”, and thus enabled a far better Framework to be established from the beginning.

Now that we know there is a two-party Executive, there would be no harm in starting again with the outcomes. Let us see around five meaningful outcomes, and then link some meaningful indicators to them. And let us accompany that with a root-and-branch reform of the NI Civil Service (and Health and Education administration), including outside expertise, to make it fit for delivering meaningful outcomes not process-based functions. The principle of the “outcomes-based approach” is fine. The practice will require a fundamental re-think.

Executive needs to realise it is single unit

I joked shortly after the referendum that no one would have believed, in mid-2016, that Northern Ireland would have a stable government and opposition and England would have neither.

Northern Ireland’s problem remains, however, that neither the government nor the opposition has worked out it has to function as a single unit. That is how democratic legislatures work. This means not only that the opposition must function as a coherent unit in order to deny the DUP/SF coalition a majority at the next Assembly election (and thus force a change of Executive), but also that the Executive must so function.

What we now have in Northern Ireland is close to normality. As the First Minister kept reminding us, her party won the election alongside Sinn Fein (admittedly she omits that last bit, but she would do well to remember she cannot govern without her coalition partners!) and thus it has a mandate to govern alongside Sinn Fein (whose seats provide it with the majority in the legislature). That means the Executive must function as a single unit, as it has an Assembly majority on that basis. Just as Scotland’s minority government and Wales’ Lib-Lab coalition provide a single government position on every issue, so must Northern Ireland’s.

Quite obviously, that includes the European Union. The Executive’s job now, taking account of the referendum result both across the UK and within Northern Ireland, is to take a collective position on what Northern Ireland wants from the UK-EU negotiations about to take place. It has failed to do this.

Thus far, we have seen a Finance Minister join the Scottish and Welsh Finance Ministers to suggest some form of united front (no one is quite sure for what, however); and we have had the somewhat embarrassing farce of Northern Ireland’s Agriculture Minister going to the EU with a begging bowl saying how vital EU funding is for farmers here despite having advocated a vote to leave. It is an incoherent mess (and there is, at last, some hint of the SDLP and Alliance working together at least to point that out).

The First Minister and deputy First Minister may lead different Assembly teams but they share the same office – an office which has responsibility for European Union affairs as they impact on Northern Ireland. So what is the settled view of that office? It has no entitlement to present more than one view. Its role is to reach consensus on what precisely Northern Ireland wants from the forthcoming negotiations, and then to argue for it using all the channels available. There is no reason, for example, that my own proposals should cause either party any significant problem (after all, even a Sinn Fein Minister has muttered about Corporation Tax now having to go lower than in the rest of the island for it to be worthwhile).

Whatever, a single coherent Executive position is necessary. Now.

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