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“Liberal Unionists” have no future in UUP

The Ulster Unionists suffered the worst decline of any party in this month’s election, losing both their seats and 30,000 votes even on a higher turnout. In some cases, despite a hard-working campaign and perfectly competent candidates, the vote halved versus March alone.

Yet the party’s base remains conservative in every sense. It has no feel for how to reach out across the divide – as Mike Nesbitt (another victim of an astonishing decline last Thursday) had tried to do in February to the horror of many of his own candidates. There is a strand of opinion even within the diminished party which is in favour of Unionist Unity anyway – seemingly unaware that poor elections are bound to deliver just that anyway.

Where now for “Liberal Unionists”? I have long queried whether these really exist – of course there are people who are Liberal and favour maintenance of the UK, but prioritising constitutional politics is not what Liberals typically do. If the purpose of “Liberal Unionism” is a Northern Ireland for all, there are many non-Unionists serious about that too – and the electoral reality is that the only way to gain influence to deliver is to cooperate with them.

In short, this means there is no point in “Liberal Unionists” trying to deliver from within an ever-diminishing UUP most of whose members are not Liberal Unionists anyway. Remaining a minority of a minority of a minority is pointless.

Ultimately a realignment is going to happen. “Liberal Unionists” have now to decide whether they will take a leading role within it.

What could the various financial deals look like?

We are now at the stage where the DUP has, shall we say, “endorsed” Theresa May’s Conservatives in office but absolutely no more, while talks are ongoing for the grandest possible coalition at devolved level in Northern Ireland. To some extent, the former makes the latter easier – it is now politically easier for the Conservatives to accede to particular financial demands from Northern Ireland, even if they are not from the DUP.

Nevertheless, this does not quite mean that “no pothole will go unfilled” as suggested by one LBC commentator, although I saw his broad point. Regionally identifiable funding is subject to the Barnett Formula, so money cannot simply be dished out.

Nevertheless, some things probably could be worth requesting through a less strict application of “parity” and a series of “Programme Funds”:

– acceptance that the RHI shortfall and the non-application of bedroom tax do not breach parity, at a stroke restoring £40m to the Northern Ireland devolved budget annually (perhaps throwing Air Passenger Duty into the bargain for another few million; reduced Corporation Tax is less likely as Scotland would inevitably seek it too);

– establishment of a “UK-Ireland Infrastructure Fund” (around a third Dublin-funded in line with existing A5 commitments to meet requirements of St Andrews) to assist with infrastructure in border areas (effectively enabling the A5 Derry-Ballygawley and A6 Derry-Dungiven to be built with external money, saving the Northern Ireland devolved budget in effect around £200m/year to the mid-2020s, plus the Border Pipeline);

– establishment of a “UK-Ireland Health Transformation Fund” (mainly UK Government funded but with some Irish funding to explore cross-border cooperation for rarer treatments or conditions) to enable Northern Ireland’s devolved Health budget to be spent entirely on care while an extra amount (perhaps a reasonable sizeable one bigger than either of the savings above) is allocated by the UK Government towards the change management required for the transformation to take place in return for sharing of relevant learning and best practice (for example with developing integrated Health and Social Care systems in places like Greater Manchester);

– establishment of a “UK-Ireland Compensation Fund” (exclusively UK funded but with potential relevance across the Island) to pay victims of historical child abuse without affecting the Northern Ireland devolved budget; and

– a “UK-Ireland Communities Fund” to help inner-city communities overcome paramilitarism and help border communities (and businesses) with any of the administration arising from Brexit.

I should emphasise, not all of these would be on my priority list and I am not suggesting this is all fair. Much of it simply kicks the economic can down the road. Nor do I think all of it is deliverable at once. But it is a judgement of the sort of thing the main parties may be looking at as the various deals unfold.

Could Brexit mean end of NHS?

I earned headlines in Dublin last week for my contention at a European Movement/Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung conference at Iveagh House that a Hard Brexit would turn London into some kind of casino town, attracting the rich and playful but doing very little for those on low and fixed incomes elsewhere in the country as Sterling declined. In the room, however, there was more interest in my contention that Brexit could mean the end of the NHS.

I would, in fact, have thought this was obvious from the very start. Sir John Major warned before he referendum that Brexit would place the NHS (by which I mean a universal health service free at point of access) in the hands of people who did not care for it as a model. Figures last week showing that nurses seeking entry to the UK have declined by 96% – an inevitable consequence of the whole atmosphere of post-Brexit Britain – show that it will be impossible to staff the Service without investing huge amounts (ahem, like more than £350m/week) in training alone. Most of all, the simple and obvious fact is that restricting trade will make the country materially poorer, reducing Government revenues and, as an obvious consequence, Health Budgets.

This is why the whole £350m claim was so utterly bogus. Leaving the EU will inevitably reduce, not increase, UK Government revenue and thus cost the Health Service money as well as staff. Since it is already teetering, it is genuinely hard to see how it survives.

There was genuine debate at the event as to whether the recent UK election result raises the prospect of Brexit not in fact proceeding. I am genuinely unsure. However, if a referendum were re-run now, making the obvious point that Brexit almost certainly means the end of the NHS, I wonder just how many people would vote for it… what, indeed, is the “will of the people”?

Opposition needs to learn from Corbyn that criticism is not enough

Anyone acquainted with me in any way whatsoever will be well aware I am not exactly Jeremy Corbyn’s greatest fan. However, there is one thing he gets absolutely right that Northern Ireland’s smaller parties get wrong – he does not just criticise, he offers something.

I or anyone else may choose to disagree vehemently with what Mr Corbyn offers and to cast it as irresponsible or outright dangerous, but at least it is something.

Have a look at the smaller parties in Northern Ireland, most obviously the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP. Just glance down their recent releases or watch anything their Leader has said. What you will see and hear is criticism of what others (the larger communal rival, the other side, the UK Government or even Jessie Jackson) are doing or saying or indeed not doing – but what you will not hear is an offer of anything. What exactly would be different if I voted for them?

Earlier this month Jeremy Corbyn got incredibly lucky, because his gains were down primarily to the pathetic campaign of Theresa May. However, he did offer something – and many genuinely responded to his call for hope and politics for the many. What are Robin Swann and Colum Eastwood offering that is even remotely comparable?

It is simply not good enough to critique the larger parties or the national governments and then hope people turn to you. You need to make an offer of something discernibly different. Agree or disagree, like or loathe, that is what Jeremy Corbyn did. It is to be learned from.

Difference between Scots and Gibberish

Oh dear.


Let us leave aside the sentiment. Linguistically, this is nonsense.

Scots is not just makey-uppy English; it is a linguistic system in its own right and, despite the lack of an absolute standard, that system has rules – including with regard to spelling.

This should in fact read something like: we soudna be takkin the fit aff the undependence accelerator, we soud be pressin it tae the fluir! Like Wallace, nou isna the time for faint herts – it’s the time for bauld new braveherts!

The most obvious confusion concerns the digraph ‘ui‘, as in guid ‘good’. This has a very specific pronunciation (although it varies from dialect to dialect, it is always higher than in English), which is distinct from the ‘ou‘ in soud/shoud ‘should’ (pronounced more or less as in English) and the ‘i‘ in fit ‘foot’. In fact, the only word in which it actually appears is spelled in the original to suggest a different pronunciation – in fact the vowel in fluir ‘floor’ is pronounced in Scots as in guid (the original ‘flair’ is just nonsense). There is more to writing Scots than just guessing based on English pronunciation.

Even in this small section, there are other obvious errors and inconsistencies, notably ‘bold’ (actually if it is auld ‘old’ it must, etymologically and phonologically, be bauld ‘bold’).

The problem with the promotion of Scots in Scotland has for some time been the reverse of the problem for Ulster Scots in Northern Ireland and Donegal. In Scotland, the tendency is to go too close to English; in Northern Ireland, the tendency is to go too far away. In both cases, however, the result too often is a completely inconsistent mess with no basis on good linguistic practice.

Underlying this particular piece (and, it must be said, others like it in the same paper) seems to be the rather ludicrous notion that because someone is Scottish they can automatically speak and write Scots. Actually the vast majority of Scots speak and write English, albeit with notable Scots influence. Scots itself, however, is a different linguistic system with its own etymological, literary and orthographical heritage – something you would think independence supporters would recognise! Like anything else, it must be learned properly before it is used – otherwise the result just looks like scunnersom haivers.



To survive, SDLP cannot just be “SF lite”


Two years ago Alasdair McDonnell narrowly lost the SDLP Leadership and, with it, his parliamentary seat. His replacement, Colum Eastwood, was a lot greener in every sense, and his determination to try to match Sinn Féin’s position in everything has now delivered the most crushing electoral defeat in its history, including costing Mr McDonnell himself his seat as Unionists came out in droves to replace him.

Six weeks before polling day the Irish News ran a story on the front page that Sinn Féin and the SDLP had discussed a pact. Then MP for South Down Margaret Ritchie was horrified, tweeting immediately that the SDLP did not do pacts – partly no doubt because she recognised they would cost her lent votes from Unionists, but probably also because she believed it. Her Party Leader said little, however, and the news agenda was set. He was later forced to admit that they had been discussed. If Ms Ritchie had ever had any chance of nicking enough tactical votes to retain her seat, it was gone now and she probably knew it.

Three weeks before polling day the SDLP launched its manifesto. Speaking at the launch, the Party Leader chose to prioritise in his speech something which was barely in the manifesto at all – a “Border Poll”, and by the end of the decade at that. At that moment, it is not unreasonable to believe that 170 people of broadly unionist background decided they could not lend their vote to a party whose platform was now utterly indistinguishable from Sinn Féin’s in any case, and his colleague Mark Durkan lost his Foyle seat.

For all its honourable past, under current leadership, the SDLP offers nothing of consequence different from Sinn Féin. Brexit is bad, the DUP can’t be trusted, we should have a Border Poll more or less immediately, Tory cuts are terrible – in fact the only meaningful difference is on abortion, where it is Sinn Féin which takes the more moderate position. “Sinn Féin lite” with an added dose of social conservatism is never going to cut it.

As a consequence, the SDLP lost its entire Westminster representation and is now relegated firmly into the second tier alongside the Ulster Unionists and Alliance. It will no doubt point to 95,000 votes, but almost exactly half of those were cast in the three constituencies where the SDLP had the incumbent. In the other 15, the SDLP was a distant fifth – and with no incumbents next time, it is hard to see how any of the three previously held seats will not now swing to Sinn Féin the same way as Newry & Armagh post-Mallon or even Belfast West post-Hendron.

Like the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP shows no willingness even to learn that it will never ever out-do its communal rival on the constitutional issue. If I want a United Ireland tomorrow, I’ll vote for the party with Dáil representation thanks. If I want someone who will take their seat to take on the Tories on the NHS and welfare, I probably won’t want to risk those in a United Ireland tomorrow anyway (whether or not it is my ultimate aspiration).

You can shoot the messenger all you like, but try to ride two horses and you tend to fall off.

Media analysts need to report talks, not create own narratives

In this era of 24-hour news, on demand TV and Twitter, there is a real sense in which the media (in whatever form) seem to create stories and narratives rather than report them. One example is the impact of a potential Conservative-DUP arrangement at UK level on talks to restore a devolved Executive in Northern Ireland.

It seems to me some in the media have decided that this creates a problem because it apparently imbalances the talks process.

What is interesting, and indeed to be applauded, is that Sinn Féin itself has said no such thing. It has suggested that a Conservative deal is not in the interests of Northern Ireland in general, and there are many who share that view. But in fact it has said clearly that it wishes to get on with the talks process, noting that it never saw the UK Government as impartial anyway (a point it made frequently long before last Thursday). Indeed, its implicit position is that the restoration of a Conservative Government of any kind is all the more reason to restore political powers to this part of Ireland – which, if it becomes explicit, is an entirely logical and sensible position for any left-leaning party to hold (and even more so for an Irish Republican one).

For all their faults, both the DUP and Sinn Féin generally say what they mean. The DUP got a mandate on a specific platform of restoring devolution “with no red lines”; Sinn Féin has said we should get to work. The media’s role is to report that is what they have said, not to create a notion of further instability based on the analysis of those same “pundits” who misread how well those two parties would do in the election in the first place.

Although of course I stand opposed to them vehemently on most of the issues, it is the DUP and Sinn Féin who will decide whether they want devolution restored, and the evidence of a fairly tame election campaign (for which both were rewarded by the voters) and a reasonably mature line taken after it is that they do. So they should be given every chance to prove they can deliver. After all, where there is a will there is a way.

Everything on the table on Brexit

I am in Dublin today with the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung hosted by the European Movement for a conference on our future relations with the EU which could not be better timed. Suddenly, everything is back on the table.

Even a Conservative-DUP coalition would hold a majority in the Commons of just 12 (after the Speaker and SF). It takes just six rebels for it to fail, and by-elections will surely reduce that number even if Parliament survives in current form.

Theresa May went into the election seeking an increased mandate for a line which was essentially “no deal is better than a bad deal”. The people spoke, and said “Actually, no Brexit is better than a bad Brexit“.

Political parties are all about holding on to power. With a recession coming, Conservatives have already begun muttering that they never really intended to leave the Single Market. Interestingly, they don’t need the DUP for that – the similarly electorally chastened SNP would give them the numbers to deliver that and get off the hook of requiring an independence referendum it would surely lose.

Then the question arises about the Customs Union. The reason for leaving it is to do “our own trade deals”, but that is nonsense. The UK would not get better trade deals on its own that it would as part of the world’s largest trading bloc. The people aren’t as stupid as Brexit Secretary David Davis seems to think, so he must know that they know this.

Putting maintenance of the Single Market and the Customs Union back on the table then raises the obvious further question – why leave at all? I suggested immediately after the referendum that what the UK should in fact negotiate is an emergency brake on immigration while remaining in the EU as an “associate”. Suddenly, that looks like not only the most sensible option, but probably also the most popular one…

“Centre Ground” cannot be built on inevitably sectarian preferences

On Thursday, the DUP outpolled the Ulster Unionists by 3.5:1, despite allowing them a free run in Fermanagh/South Tyrone which alone accounted for nearly 30% of their total. Meanwhile Sinn Féin outpolled the SDLP by almost 2.5:1, with half the SDLP’s vote coming in the three seats they held (but still lost).

The Ulster Unionists pledged to come back. The SDLP pledged to listen. They’ve been pledging that for 15 years. The decline has continued. The SDLP mustered just 400 votes in one constituency and 167 in another – we are reaching a position where in some parts the brand means nothing at all. The Ulster Unionists didn’t even risk their deposit in three cases.

The “centre ground” is crumbling apparently, but in fact the Alliance Party and Greens largely held their ground, seeing their vote share decrease narrowly but total vote in fact increase. So the real “centre ground” had an average night – no better, but no worse.

To many, the obvious thing is for the “Centre Ground” (implicitly including the SDLP and Ulster Unionists in most people’s minds) to cooperate more effectively. We should not underestimate this desire. But it does hide one obvious problem – the SDLP and Ulster Unionists are profoundly communal (or, if you like, sectarian) parties.

The crux of both parties’ problems is that they both deny the reality of Northern Ireland as it is. In Northern Ireland, 85%+ of people grow up with either a British or Irish national identity reinforced by attendance at either a state or maintained school and followed up by choices in leisure and often residence which continue to fall along those sectarian fault lines. That national identity is something into which we are born, and it is this which determines whether we are Unionist or Nationalist or, at very least, whether our broad constitutional preference is pro-UK or pro-United Ireland. The notion that we make this selection “rationally”, as implicitly claimed by one MLA at the weekend, is simply ignorant of reality.

Lest anyone doubt that our society being divided in this way is reality and not just stereotype, I tallied a box on Thursday night which was DUP 89%, Alliance 8%, UU 2%, Green 1%; and another which was SDLP 47%, SF 40%, Alliance 8%, DUP 2%, Green 1%. So one was 100% non-Nationalist; the other was 98% non-Unionist. Anyone who denies this profound division denies reality.

The nature of our society means that putting a constitutional preference front and centre of your programme is instantly sectarian – because it includes one side and excludes the other (the very definition of sectarianism). The notion that people born into a British national identity can be “talked round” to a United Ireland or that those born into an Irish national identity can be made suddenly to love Britishness is simply fantasy. This is why the very foundation of the Agreement is enabling both identities to be experienced as thoroughly as possible – which is why among other things it really shouldn’t be a problem for Unionists to play a role in the UK Government (playing a full role in British national life) or for Nationalists to have a vote for President of Ireland (playing a full role in Irish national life).

Therefore, the “Centre Ground” should be focused on those determined to enable citizens in Northern Ireland to play a full role in the life of the nation they choose (accepting the limitations of sovereignty one way or the other), but cannot pick a particular side – as soon as it does that, it is back in the sectarian trenches where it will inevitably be defeated by whichever of the two big parties is in the same trench. Ultimately the aim is to reframe the debate towards maximising opportunity for all, rather than in a particular constitutional end game for some.

Ultimately this gives “Liberal Unionists” and SDLP supporters a choice. Do they wish to continue being trounced electorally while pursuing an unreal pretence that constitutional aspirations and ultimately national identities are “rational”, or do they wish to build a Northern Ireland in which everyone gets to play a full role in the life of the nation into which they were born while also fulfilling the responsibilities and enjoying the rights that come with being a citizen of this particular jurisdiction? Those who choose the former will just continue to lose with decreasing purpose; but those who choose the latter will find renewed purpose in building a real “Centre Ground” and a proper Progressive Movement fit to fulfill the aspirations of all our citizens in the 21st century.

Beware pundits who talk without thinking, now more than ever

The outcome of the UK General Election has resulted in an “arrangement” involving the DUP, about which there is not yet any detail, to ensure that the Conservatives, who have a narrow overall majority in Great Britain but not the UK, can form a government.

Inevitably this outcome has caused significant bemusement and concern. Expert opinion is being sought, both inside Northern Ireland and without, about what this will mean.

One of the most expert electoral post-War commentators is Sir David Butler, who provided expert commentary on the 1959 General Election from a smoke-filled BBC studio and has done so again even in 2017 on Twitter. He cautioned, on Wednesday, that for all his expertise (he was too modest to reference that) he had no idea what the outcome would be. “All I know is that I don’t know”, he wrote, sagely.

I am no Sir David, but I have been involved in politics, both as an elected representative for six years and as a commentator and campaigner for rather longer, and again the truth is I do not know what a Conservative-DUP arrangement will mean. All I know is that I don’t know.

The problem in this social media age is that we are always desperate for quick knowledge and information. The quest for this results in a tendency to prioritise only people who are prepared to offer quick opinions, rather than taking time to ensure that those opinions have value as reasonable analysis. Indeed, those prepared to offer quick opinions are disproportionately those whose analysis is anything but reasonable or objective. In other words, the quest for quick information almost always results in misinformation.

Just have a look in Northern Ireland at the pundits’ election predictions even locally. Almost no one saw the DUP (and, to a lesser extent, Sinn Féin) surge coming to anything like the extent it did. Those parties took two thirds of the vote between them, yet very few pundits are associated with either of them.

What we do now is that both the UK and Northern Ireland are rudderless. Now, more than ever, is the time to think rather than talk before we work out how to put things back on track. As we do so, we should note that the wise people are those not currently offering advice or opinions – and we should in future probably be more careful whose advice we buy.