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DUP/SF don’t want to govern – so should be forced to

It is entirely predictable that the next few days will consist of the DUP and Sinn Féin blaming each other for a second election and ongoing political instability – when in fact a second election is what they both want.

What they do not want is to take responsibility for the calamitous state of Northern Ireland’s public finances; for the disastrous state of Northern Ireland’s Health Service; or for the failure to build schools, invest in roads and sort our water infrastructure. And as for Brexit…

I cautioned on these pages before the first election this year that the NIO should intervene to stop an election taking place.

Such an election would not just waste another £5 million. It would leave hundreds if not thousands of people unsure if they will have a job on 6 April; it would leave tens of thousands unsure when they will get vital treatment, vital medication or a vital diagnosis (while increasing numbers with the means simply go private); it would leave teacher pay disputes unresolved while pupils are taught in sheds rather than proper classrooms. Another six weeks for an election is six weeks (as well as £5 million) Northern Ireland simply cannot afford.

The UK Government somewhat churlishly commented earlier in the week that political stability in Northern Ireland is its responsibility. Well, frankly, it had better take some responsibility. Endless elections consisting of pushing sectarian buttons move us away from resolution at great and direct cost to tens of thousands of people, as well as leaving the entire process perched unnecessarily precariously.

Instead it should get on and do what it said it would do in past agreements (including introducing an Irish Language Act and setting up legacy bodies) and put it to the DUP and Sinn Féin simply: we had the election; you won a mandate to govern; you get on with it. Refuse to do it, and the people will know who to blame when jobs are being lost, free health services are being closed, and schools are going unbuilt.

By the way, the law requires the Secretary of State to call an election, but then the law requires the current UK parliamentary term to last five years. You know what Theresa May is about to do? Change the law so she can have an earlier election! If changing the law is good enough for the narrow interests of the Conservative Right, why is it not good enough for political stability in Northern Ireland?

We will miss Martin McGuinness

At the beginning of his adult life, Martin McGuinness was responsible for grotesque attacks and for numerous cases of human lives wasted and ended without justification.  We should never forget that.

Yet there was truth in Ian Paisley’s words that what matters is how you end your life; and in David’s Trimble’s that we would face the future with greater optimism if Martin McGuinness were still at the helm of Sinn Féin in the Assembly. We should not forget that either.

Human beings are capable of extraordinary feats of wickedness, and these should never be written out of the history books. However, they are also capable of remarkable change. We should indeed be grateful that Mr McGuinness decided to change; to put his undoubted charisma and leadership skills to much less destructive and more effective use than he did in his early years. For there is also truth in the straightforward old cliche that you do not make peace with your friends.

Indeed, we may note that grotesque destruction and appalling wickedness would surely have gone on in Northern Ireland with or without Mr McGuinness. But it is possible peace would not have advanced so far without him.

We are without him now. I trust that Sinn Féin’s next generation of leaders will find the willingness and ability to take us forward, not back; to move towards stability, not chaos; and actually to govern responsibly, not retreat to the sidelines.

Let us all be peacemakers now.

How typical is the Solar System?

Venus comes as close as it ever does to Earth next weekend, and (from the UK and Ireland at least) has been as bright as ever just above the setting Sun at nightfall over the past few weeks.


In terms of size, Venus is remarkably similar to Earth, but is of course closer to the Sun (71% to 72% as far on average). It is one of four inner, terrestrial (rocky) planets, the smallest and closest to the Sun being Mercury and the most habitable other than Earth being the outermost Mars (roughly between Mercury’s and Earth’s size).

As a child I was gripped by the Solar System from the moment I observed Jupiter’s Red Spot (a storm then three times the size of Earth on the surface of the planet) through a telescope given to me for my ninth birthday. Jupiter is of course the largest planet (all the others in the Solar System would fit into it), the nearest of the outer planets and a “gas giant” a little over five times the distance of the Earth from the Sun; Saturn, also a “gas giant” and famous for its rings, is next, followed by the smaller “ice giants” Uranus and Neptune (similar in size and mass to each other, neither of which were known to the ancients and the latter of which is not even close to visible with the naked eye even in absolutely ideal conditions).

As well as moons around the planets (except Venus and Mercury) and various other objects with share orbits with the planets, the Solar System also possesses an Asteroid belt (essentially of small rocks) between Mars and Jupiter (much closer, in fact, to the former) and series of outer clouds and belts which are not all well understood. Some of these contain dwarf planets such as Pluto; outer ones have comets with weird elongated orbits. A full light year from the Sun (for scale, Earth is eight light minutes away and Neptune four light hours), the Solar System absolutely ends as the solar wind meets what is essentially outer space (known as the “interstellar medium”).

What has happened in astronomy in the 30 years since I first picked up that telescope is astounding. Then, it was not known whether there even were other planetary systems. Now, not only have 4000 or so “exoplanets” (planets orbiting other stars) been found, but entire systems are beginning to be understood. We are still at the beginning of this voyage of scientific discovery, but there is now some indication of how “normal” we are.

The Sun itself is often deemed a “typical” star but in fact it is abnormal in the sense it is among only 15% or so which are visible from other systems (the Sun would be visible with the naked eye in a night sky equivalent to our own up to about 80 light years away). Also, the Sun is among a minority (albeit a large minority) of stars which are alone – just over half are part of binary or multi-star systems (some are confirmed to have as many as four, and up to six may be possible). Of the lone visible stars like the Sun, that is to say 7-8% of the total star systems (at least in the nearby part of our galaxy), the Sun is fairly average, although some stars are vastly bigger (often thousands of times more massive and luminous) and life ranges can vary hugely (from a few million years to potentially a trillion; the Sun is halfway through its fairly average ten billion year life cycle). Stars are different colours too – the Sun, for the record, is white (it appears yellow-orange to us due to our atmosphere).

So of these single visible star systems, how typical is ours?

Well, the range of planets is fairly typical (although by no means universal). It is quite common to have small terrestrial inner planets and large gaseous outer planets. It is hard to say for certain, because by definition the exoplanets found so far tend to be large and close to their star, but the range of sizes would also appear to be quite normal, although many planets have been found to be between the size of Earth and Neptune, and quite a high number between Neptune and Jupiter. There is no reason to doubt that moons are fairly typical also. It may be that most systems have rather more than eight identifiable planets on average (some are already known to have as many as six closer to their star than Mercury is to the Sun).

Two things do stand out as definite and slightly surprising, however.

Firstly, as expected, planets tend to orbit their stars along the star’s plane in the same direction as the star rotates (that direction, in the case of the Solar System, is anti-clockwise looking down from the north). However, it was also expected that planets would generally rotate the same way as they orbit (six of the eight in the Solar System do, and the remaining two were thought to be peculiar – Uranus effectively spins upright on a horizontal axis, and Venus spins theoretically clockwise but incredibly slowly, with its rotational day in fact lasting longer than its orbital year). Remarkably, it turns out that the rotational direction of stars and planets is random (roughly 50% clockwise and 50% anti-clockwise), and there is no connection between them in any given system – in other words, planets are as likely to rotate against their orbital direction as with it, and indeed seemingly entire planetary systems are as likely to rotate against their direction of travel through the galaxy as with it. (There are even systems where some planets do orbit the opposite way to their star’s rotation, particularly large planets close to their star, but this is atypical.)

Secondly, planets in the Solar System (particularly Earth) have relatively circular orbits, with little eccentricity (i.e. little difference between their closest point to and further point from the Sun). It turns out this is unusual. In most planetary systems, most or indeed all planets have more eccentric orbits than even the most eccentric in our Solar System; indeed, none has yet been discovered where even the average eccentricity is lower than that of Mercury, the Solar System’s most eccentric planet. There are also systems with large planets close to the star which are misaligned – that is to say the plane of their orbit does not match the plane of their star’s rotation. (This is all potentially a problem for the development of complex life forms, which is thought to be easier on planets with less eccentric orbits.)

Another thing which has become evident is that many planetary systems have planets which are locked to their star (i.e. they take precisely as long to rotate as they do to orbit and thus always show the same face to their star, the way the Moon does to Earth), or which are still orbiting in an interlinked manner (known as “orbital resonance”; for example planets which complete precisely three orbits for every two the next planet out completes). None of this occurs in our Solar System (at least as regards planets and the Sun). As noted above there is a bias here, however, towards systems with large inner planets, so we cannot yet determine whether such locking and interlinking is really common.

Thus our own Solar System is in some ways typical but in notable ways abnormal. The search for other planetary systems will no doubt make us able to determine just how typical and abnormal in the coming years.

The result matters profoundly. It could be that the Solar System is particularly or even uniquely capable of supporting complex life.

Or not…

#AE17 Transfers Analysis

There is a lot of talk around elections on either side of the Irish border about “transfers” – the votes which go to eliminated candidates or which are not needed by elected candidates which are then transferred to the next available preference.

“Transfers” are in fact a little like away goals; they do not really come into play if there are clear winners in terms of first preferences (as there were, for example, in North Down, West Tyrone and most notably Newry and Armagh, where the no doubt transfer-friendly Ulster Unionist Danny Kennedy was unseated simply because he was too far behind five other candidates on first preferences). “Look after the first preferences and the transfers will look after themselves”, is what I often tell candidates pre-election!

Nevertheless, the transfers did tell an interesting story, and there is no doubt that a significant direct Ulster Unionist to SDLP transfer (in line with Mike Nesbitt’s publicly stated view) was decisive in electing John Dallat in East Londonderry.

Studying transfers in the Greater Belfast constituencies (where all five main parties are traditionally major players and two other parties also hold seats), there is significant variation between constituencies. Very often voters are clear about their choice of party for first and perhaps second and third preference, but then consider individual candidates for later preferences.

Two early eliminations (but still late enough to involve several thousand votes) stand out. In East Antrim, the elimination of SDLP candidate Margaret McKillop saw 47% of her transfers go to Alliance, 32% to Sinn Féin, and 12% to the Ulster Unionists directly. Although those first two figures are typical for Greater Belfast constituencies over many years, that last 12% is notably high by historical standards and suggests that some SDLP voters did specifically vote for “Colum and Mike”. A similar story in reverse came in Belfast North, where the elimination of Ulster Unionist Robert Foster saw 45% of transfers go to the DUP, 24% to Alliance, and fully 17% directly to the SDLP (again, a markedly higher figure than the historical norm). Neither of these was outright decisive on this occasion, but both were helpful to the Ulster Unionists gaining a second seat in East Antrim and the SDLP successfully defending a vulnerable one in Belfast North, just as they were designed to be – loyalty to the Opposition trumped communal loyalty for at least an eighth of the electorate, and probably rather more.

Noteworthy also was the Sinn Féin surplus in Belfast South, 59% of which went to the SDLP but 15% directly to Alliance and 10% directly to the Green. There is no obvious comparison in any other constituency, but this is perhaps an element of loyalty to social liberalism trumping communal loyalty (as is perhaps to be expected in that particular constituency).

It is often said that Northern Ireland elections are essentially two separate polls – one Unionist and one Nationalist. Yet not only did around 120,000 people vote first preference for candidates who were neither of those, but even thousands of those who did then transferred to candidates from other designations, often in preference to other candidates of the same designation – to support the Opposition, or particular social policies, or perhaps for many other reasons.

This should at least be food for thought for those who seem set on taking us down a track which will lead to pure “50%+1” politics. It is not what hundreds of thousands of people want, and it is not what they voted for earlier this month.

Does Sinn Féin want to govern?

Sinn Féin unquestionably had a good Assembly Election, not just because its vote rose and the gap between it and the DUP fell to just one seat, but because its decision to have the election cost it just one incumbent and enabled new (predominantly youthful, female) MLAs to be elected top of the poll.

Electorally, therefore, Sinn Féin has earned a solid mandate. That leaves an obvious problem, however – what does it want to do with it?

The party’s case, that Arlene Foster’s actions smacked at best of incompetence and that Paul Givan’s and others were pure disrespect, was not without merit and the (Nationalist) electorate agreed. But what does a solution to this look like?

The question, ultimately, is simple. Does Sinn Féin want to govern?

The answer to this question, as it knows, will be watched across the island of Ireland. Until now, instability has generally suited Sinn Féin and, perhaps partly because success breeds success, it now lies second in the polls in the Republic of Ireland ahead of Fine Gael.

Ultimately, however, voters are not in the current global context in the mood for further instability. Brexit, Trump, ScotRef and everything else are quite enough, and the experience of the Troika and the Irish property meltdown is raw. If candidates wish to be taken seriously as governing parties in Dublin, they may have to offer change but they will definitely have to offer stability.

Therefore, while many things are falling its way, Sinn Féin too is at a crossroads. Does it actually wish to govern? Because it is not just the Secretary of State who is capable of “waffle”!

#Brexit farce runs out of control

The vote for the UK to leave the EU with no plan in place was the single biggest act of economic and political sabotage any country has brought upon itself.

The blame rests not with those who voted for it – there were grounds of national sovereignty upon which the case could be made for the UK to become politically clearly distinct from the EU – but on the callous leaders of the Leave campaign who argued their case without any notion of how it could be delivered without becoming a constitutional and financial catastrophe.

The cost of this catastrophe is already being borne by the poorest, of course (those who rarely get much coverage in the media). As the cost of living (and particularly of fuel) rises, those on low and fixed incomes have nowhere to go. After all, it is no use the economy growing 2% if the cost of living is growing 2.8% – quite obviously, that leaves us all worse off, and particularly those reliant on minimum wage pay or benefits (which are not growing 2%).

On top of all of this, we now have the added constitutional uncertainty and wrangle of potential Scottish independence – the threat of which was seen off in 2014 until people voted for a Brexit Fantasyland which was never ever on offer.

Let us remember it clearly: “They need us more than we need them” cried the Brexiteers. Now they face the very real prospect of leaving the EU without a deal and without a quarter of their territory.

Take back control? This is out of control.

By the way, stricter immigration controls are perfectly possible within the EU. So is it not time to accept that the whole thing is folly and end this farce, for the sake of our economy and our unity?

Media still need improved understanding of STV

Perhaps the big moment of the recent Assembly Election campaign was Mike Nesbitt’s statement that he would transfer to the SDLP. The debate will rage about whether this was politically or strategically the right thing, but what was widely missed by the media at the time was that his statement was in fact irrelevant, at least in terms of his own vote.

Firstly, the Ulster Unionists and SDLP together were running only 45 candidates – not enough for a majority of the 90 seats in order to pursue their programme, even if they happened to be the largest party in each designation. On top of that, there was no chance of the SDLP winning a seat in East Belfast, where in the previous election they had attained the worst result ever in any constituency by an incumbent Executive party. Even this time, on a rising turnout, the party could muster only 250.

Mr Nesbitt’s vote, therefore, was never going to reach the SDLP.

In fact, it was never realistically going to leave his own party’s candidate, unless he lost his seat comfortably. If your first preference vote is cast for a candidate who does not reach quota on the first count but is subsequently elected (or runner-up), no part of it ever transfers. The only time a portion of your vote transfers is if it happens to count towards an elected candidate at the time of election (i.e. on the count which elects that candidate). Mr Nesbitt’s vote was only ever going to transfer if his own party’s candidate, Andy Allen, performed so terribly that he was eliminated before it was clear which five candidates would be elected (which was never likely).

So in fact the immediate next question for Mr Nesbitt should have been to point out that his vote was not going to transfer, and even if it did it was never reaching the SDLP. Was he really just engaged in a bit opportunism to try to scramble some of his own candidates in the West home on SDLP transfers (if so, this actually worked in Fermanagh & South Tyrone)? And indeed, why go for the SDLP second preference ahead of the potentially relevant Alliance Party, whose MLAs would be needed for him ever to command a majority as First Minister?

The electoral system is complex, and for that reason I personally do not like it. However, the media do need to get a better grasp of it.

“Unionist Unity” now certain

Unionists, as ever, instantly misdiagnosed the cause of their calamity last Thursday, suggesting it was due to Unionists “not coming out”.

Actually, more people voted Unionist first preference than in any election since the first Assembly Election in 1998. What happened was not that Unionists did not come out, but that non-Unionists did.

Only ten months ago, non-Unionists saw no real issue with the constitutional status quo. It was possible to live in Northern Ireland with the benefit of the UK subvention and UK-standard public services while, if you so choose, living an all-island life (trading freely across the border, accessing Dublin Airport, playing GAA or whatever). From June to December, all that changed. Suddenly, the all-island life came under threat – it may no longer be straightforward to trade or travel freely across the island; your identity was openly abused by DUP Ministers; and on top of that DUP Leaders were blatantly taking money from your public services (at best through incredible incompetence).

The DUP was primarily responsible but it had been backed to nearly every intent and purpose by other Unionists. They had been involved in pacts not just to unseat abstentionist MPs but also perfectly capable and hard-working ones such as Naomi Long; Mike Nesbitt’s sudden attempt at moderation on issues ranging from same-sex marriage to Europe was rejected by most of his colleagues and most of his voters; and Unionism as a whole suddenly looked not just unattractive but outright dangerous. The UK itself, with its obsession with Trump-like figures such as Nigel Farage, also became much less attractive.

Therefore, on Thursday, the voters decided to remind Unionism that it is a minority.

Still, Unionists are in denial about that. At the last census, fully six years ago, the number of people ticking “British” was 48% and the number of people ticking “Protestant background” was 48% – noting that Alliance voters like me were among that number! Thus “Unionism” was a minority interest even back then, shielded from this reality at elections only by the low Nationalist turnout.

Going by census trends, it is now almost certain than there are more people of Catholic background than Protestant background in Northern Ireland. If the Union were such a brilliant idea, this would not be a problem for Unionists; but Unionism presents itself consistently as a Protestant and socially conservative front. There is zero chance, with the DUP to the fore, that that will change. It is therefore a minority and declining interest.

The inevitable response to this will be to deny it is true, but also to recognise at some level that it is. It is the heritage of Unionists that the response will, more than ever, be appeals towards “unity”, even though this unity will not appeal to any more than 45% of the population (and, given its likely social stances, probably rather less).

Unionist Unity is now a matter of when, not if. Yet it is not Unionists who will decide Northern Ireland’s constitutional future.

#AE17 Analysis

There has been some electoral analysis since results came through on Friday which has focused on transfers. However, transfers are like away goals – they only matter if it is close in the first place. In fact, the story of this election is as much if not more about first preference votes, which are the real determiner of where most seats go.

Clearly the SDLP did benefit from transfers; notably a lot of transfers originating from ex-DUP Ulster Unionist candidate Jenny Palmer did not go to the DUP, enabling the SDLP to take an unexpected Lagan Valley seat. Fermanagh & South Tyrone is arguably more freaky, with an SDLP elimination helping the Ulster Unionist over the line (but, without that elimination occurring so soon, it would in fact have been an Ulster Unionist helping the SDLP over the line). It was always likely the SDLP would sneak the last seat in East Londonderry and Upper Bann on the back of Ulster Unionist transfers and the simple fact it is very hard to balance two candidates ahead of one even if you have close to two-and-a-half times as many first preference votes. So it is not that transfers do not matter, but it is worth noting that these are almost always transfers from eliminated candidates.

In the end, however, you get nowhere without first preference votes, and it is here that the Ulster Unionists were unlucky or foolish, depending on how you look at it. The Ulster Unionist first preference vote share actually rose by 0.3 points to 12.9% and back over 100,000 votes, yet yielded a calamitous result. Here, we need to look at the geography.

I have noted before that Northern Ireland can be split electorally into four distinct unit – trends in each unit are usually the same way, but can vary significantly between them. These units are:

  • Belfast City (the four Belfast constituencies);
  • Belfast suburbs (the five constituencies around Belfast);
  • Border/Rural (South Down, Upper Bann, Newry/Armagh, Fermanagh/South Tyrone, West Tyrone); and
  • North Coast/Lough (Foyle, East Londonderry, Mid Ulster, North Antrim).

The Ulster Unionist performance in these is most marked. In its best ever election for first preference vote, in 2003, the party scored 18.0%, 33.6%, 21.1% and 16.5% in these areas respectively, adding up to 22.7% overall; but by 2011 these had changed to 8.8%, 17.4%, 16.9% and 7.7% for 13.2%. Clearly this was a dip everywhere, but it was much less pronounced in Border/Rural. However, fast forward to 2017 and we find 7.3%, 22.1%, 12.6% and 8.1% for 12.9% – the same vote share more or less, but yielded in quite different locations. The marked rise to 22.1% in the Belfast suburbs, the best for 14 years, saw only one gain (East Antrim) and actually two losses (Strangford and Lagan Valley) in the five-seaters. It also constituted stacking up votes in places like North Down where they were not required. However, in the Border/Rural areas disaster struck – the marked comparative decline saw a near wipe-out, with only one seat out of five retained. We can see here, therefore, how the different geographic trends led to markedly different outcomes – had the party been able to “lend” some votes from the Belfast suburbs to Border/Rural, that would have cost it little in the former but saved it a lot in the latter. To a degree, this is luck of the draw, but it again points to what a strategic error Leader Mike Nesbitt’s transfer remarks (broadly welcomed in the Unionist majority suburbs but not at all in the Nationalist majority border area) were.

Another note here is the beginning of the evening up of the Alliance performance. These figures for the party in 2011 were 13.1%, 14.9%, 2.8% and 2.9% for 7.7% overall; in a similarly impressive election they are now 14.9%, 15.0%, 4.5% and 3.6% for 9.1%, with the added 1.4 points thus coming primarily away from Greater Belfast. On this occasion, this yielded no more seats (although the eight holds were very comfortable), but even a slight improvement in future surely would.

We live in interesting times…

Arlene is not a bad person, just a bad Leader

Politics is a bloodsport, as we found out over the last few days. However, we should remember the human side, even with regard to people who have made mistakes.

Arlene Foster is a capable and kind person. Much of the criticism of her as a departmental and party leader is justified, but we should not forget the human being.

I can take you to people, indeed even among my wife’s canvass team, who will confirm her warm nature. It is small wonder Fermanagh people are so loyal to her at a human level, even if it is baffling for some of us at a political level.

Arlene Foster is a fine public servant and is someone who has delivered much good in her own locality. What she is not, is a political leader. She did not deliver significantly as a Minister and one particular oversight saw half a billion pounds disappear from the public purse. This is serious, of course, but on balance of probability I do not believe it was intentional on her part. It shows she has poor judgement as a Leader, but we must distinguish that from the human being capable of good work and kindness.

Arlene Foster is obviously, clearly, under immense strain. Again, having cost us all so much money and cost her movement the electoral majority it had always had by misreading the public mood, it is hard to feel any political sympathy. Nevertheless, such pressure rarely brings the best out of anyone at a human level.

There is much speculation about her political future, but I just hope someone is thinking of her personal future. Arlene Foster still has much to offer as a capable and kind public servant. But she is not a Leader. Her Leadership was not good for the Department of Enterprise, it was not good for Unionism, and it was not good for her personally. I sincerely hope people in her circle are gently telling her that.