What is the “original Welsh” model?

One proposal put forward by the Ulster Unionists to resolve the current deadlock is what it refers to as the “original Welsh” or “body corporate” model. Sometimes this is stated as a “no Minister” model, but this is inaccurate.

The whole issue is somewhat confusing. At the outset of devolution, the powers devolved to Scotland and Northern Ireland were similar, and both had an Executive and the capacity to pass primary legislation. However, one notable difference was that what was then the “Scottish Executive” was a separate body from the legislature, whereas the “Northern Ireland Executive” was and still is a Committee of that legislature.

Wales was different in that it initially lacked the power to pass primary legislation. It had an Executive Committee, known as the “Assembly Government”, but as in Northern Ireland this was a committee of the Assembly. It did have Ministers with portfolios, but where it differed was that Ministers (or the whole Executive) could only act upon the request of the Assembly as a “body corporate”.

It is hard to see how this resolves anything in Northern Ireland. The experience of the 1982-6 “Prior Assembly” is that Nationalists have no interest in participating in a legislature without an Executive. Fundamentally, in any case, it does not get over the hurdle that there would still be no Ministers to whom to refer things.

In fact, there may be a better case for doing what Wales now does, and separating the Executive (what Wales now simply calls the “Welsh Government”) and the legislature (the Assembly). The next time Ministers are appointed, they should be appointed (as everywhere else) until they are replaced, not merely until polling day; and the Assembly should be able to sit after an election without its first item of business necessarily being the appointment of the Executive.

For all of this, it is hard to see how it helps until the Petition of Concern is reformed. The Assembly itself was not really a functioning legislature even before January, largely because abuse of the Petition of Concern worked against those trying to make progress and deliver change (as it can be used to block change, but not to force it). Yet there is a reason the Petition exists. The fundamental structural problem lies there.


All-party talks needed to restore Executive

Earlier this month, there was no reason not to take Michelle O’Neill at her word when she said Sinn Féin wanted to be in government “in the North to deliver societal change” and no reason not to note the coordination of Arlene Foster’s response that efforts should be made to see if there was scope for agreement.

Let us emphasise again that, technically and fundamentally, the operation of the Executive requires the agreement of the two parties they lead, so it was fair enough for the two parties alone to scope out how they could improve relationships and build trust.

Nevertheless, the evidence is that, while there was progress, it was very limited. We should also note that the establishment of a rocky DUP-SF Executive with the propensity to fall apart at any moment because there is not sufficient trust within it is, in fact, in no one’s interests. That being the case, how do we get an Executive?

I think even those of us like me who support the principle of an opposition are beginning to recognise that an Executive of any coherence will need to have more than those two parties in it. All the evidence suggests it will require at least two and possibly three other parties for it to function in any kind of coherent and representative way.

By entitlement, an Executive would be 3 DUP, 2 SF, 1 SDLP and 1 UU plus Justice. The obvious route to a five-party Executive is to offer Justice to Alliance. Another option for a four-party Executive, however, would be to offer Justice to a party already entitled to a Ministry, most obviously the SDLP, which would then see the final Ministry allocated to SF (a third).

If we have established from the evidence that an all-party Executive is required, it is probably time for all-party talks to scope out the potential for putting one together. Counterintuitively, such talks may prove easier than just two-party talks, as having other parties around the table increases the scope for risk-taking (to reach a deal into which all parties are bought and, thus, from which no “opposition” party can realistically hope to gain).

There is also a case for widening the talks still further to involve civic society. Yes, politicians are the ones we elect, but they are also inclined towards living in a ‘bubble’, focused on political rather than societal outcomes. Politicians need to be confronted directly with the very real difficulties lack of agreement would cause, as well as the opportunities which agreement would help us all take.

The timescale for such talks, with Conferences and Brexit Bills ahead, is frustratingly medium rather than short term. However, all the evidence suggests they are necessary, and there is no harm in trying them at least to scope out what the issues really are.


Northern Ireland’s roads will be just fine…

At times like these when cool heads are needed, informed debate necessary and calm reflection required, I fear BBC Nolan is much more hindrance than help. Another example occurred last Friday.

The programme opened with the news that our budget for roads repair will run out at the end of October, leaving us with no maintenance for five months. “What are you paying your taxes for?” yelled Mr Nolan. The outrage was further stirred with a range of leading questions to people on the streets: “Everyone is outraged, we know you want to be like everyone, so tell us how outraged you are!

Okay, that latter was not a direct quote, but it may as well have been.

At no stage was there even a hint of proper analysis. So let us try some, in the no doubt vain hope someone will consider it…

Firstly, the notion that our roads will collapse to rack and ruin if we do not maintain them for five months is just ludicrous. I drove on roads near Rome during the summer which were so bad that you could fail to maintain Northern Ireland’s for thirty years and they would still be better. We really need to get over this “We’re uniquely terrible” syndrome!

Secondly, no attempt was made to assess how much maintenance was carried out this summer (during the first half of the financial year) when the weather was quite good and circumstances were better for it (and yes, by the way, the weather was good – cf. the aforementioned syndrome). On my journeys around the place I could hardly move for road closures (i.e. roads closed for maintenance). On my regular trips around Belfast, Newtownabbey, Bangor and Lisburn I enjoy new surfaces, new lights, new roundabouts and other obvious improvements all delivered recently. Even right now there is an off-peak lane closure near where I live to complete work on a route which was closed all summer. So how much of this is down to packing all the work in earlier in the year? How much work is generally done during the winter months anyway? I do not know – not least because Nolan never bothered to find out and tell us…

Thirdly, why are we paying our road tax? Well, it was interesting that they chose Derry for their vox pops. Through to the end of the decade, hundreds of millions will be spent upgrading roads in and to the North West, delivering an expressway/motorway all the way from Belfast to Derry except for the Glenshane Pass and a small additional section between Maghera and Castledawson. This road building will be ongoing through the rest of this financial year (although, obviously, not as much will happen during the winter months, as noted above…)

Fourthly, what do we pay our taxes for? What do we pay our taxes for? Well, a Health Service free at point of access delivering the best cancer survival rates, dementia diagnosis and renal services in the UK; a welfare system including triple lock pensions (potentially with additional mitigation versus the rest of the UK); an education system from age 4 to 16 (usually 18) delivering the best results in the UK; business development services bringing millions into the economy from tourism and media to agrifood and bio-science; free roads, waste removal and civic amenities; wide-ranging leisure and cultural programmes; police and fire services; diplomatic assistance… that enough for you?! Considering the average earner doesn’t pay income tax on half their income, the average household pays half as much in rates as the rest of the UK pays in Council Tax, and we get everything from prescriptions to water infrastructure thrown in for free, it’s hardly a bad return really…

Northern Ireland’s roads will be just fine. And we really should try putting real analysis ahead of faux outrage just once in a while.

Any Brexit solution will have to be “off the shelf”

I haven’t written previously about the Prime Minister’s speech in Florence for the simple reason there was not very much in it. Sure, there were the usual grand soundings about no concrete Irish border and being friends and allies, but nothing in the way of real clarity. Indeed, the only clear thing about it was the lack of clarity – as the Prime Minister, fully fifteen months on from the referendum, continues to speak of a “bespoke” solution.

The simple fact is, even allowing for a two-year transition (sorry, “implementation”), there is no time for an outright bespoke solution. The UK needs to choose roughly where it wishes to be, and everything can be negotiated from there.

The options are essentially:

– Canada (a free-trade deal but little else;

– Switzerland (membership of EFTA subject to the EFTA Court but not directly of the Single Market or the Customs Union);

– Norway (membership of EFTA and the EEA, and thus of the Single Market under partial ECJ jurisdiction but not the Customs Union); or

– UK transition (essentially remaining in the Single Market and forming a common Customs Union under ECJ jurisdiction, as will be necessary during the transition phase, forever).

In fact, it seems to me the Prime Minister has already selected Switzerland by default. She wants more than Canada but freedom from direct intervention by the ECJ. That leaves Switzerland.

Of course, to do Switzerland she will need to apply to join EFTA, something David Davis has indicated he does not want to do.

Oh dear…

Proteste stellen die falsche Frage

Man sieht im Fernsehen die Bilder aus Berlin, Hamburg, Köln unter anderen deutschen Grossstädten, wo Leute gegen AfD demonstrieren. Ich verstehe, dass sie dem Rest der Welt zeigen wollen, dass die modernen Deutschen keine Nazis sind. Ich habe Angst aber davor, dass sie die gleichen Fehler wie in anderen Ländern wiederholen.

Auf einem Plakat steht es “Ganz Berlin hasst AfD”. Das ist aber mehr Wunsch als Wirklichkeit. Den Protestierenden würde ich dementsprechend eine Frage stellen. Wie viele AfD-Wähler kennen Sie überhaupt? Darin liegt das Problem.

Wer den Gegner nicht genau kennt, der kann das Spiel nicht gewinnen. Es genügt nicht, gegen andere Wähler zu protestieren. Man muss versuchen, zu verstehen, warum diese MitbürgerInnen so gewählt haben, damit sie das nächste Mal nicht so wählen. Das ist mit Sicherheit eine schwierige Aufgabe.

Der ganze Westen muss den Weg finden, damit wir demokratisch und respektvoll über Einwanderung, Multikulturalismus oder sogar auch Identität miteinander sprechen können. Politik geht nicht nur um die wirtschaftliche Lage, sondern um Menschen und auch Gefühle. 

Die Antworten habe ich mit Sicherheit nicht. Wir müssen aber zunächst zusammen die richtigen Fragen stellen. Weltweit geht es um die Zukunft der Demokratie selbst. 

Germany’s “Schwarzer Sonntag” election destabilises things further

Germany has voted and, as probably should have been expected but was not, the UKIP-like Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has done better than the polls anticipated, apparently at the expense of Angela Merkel’s CDU. As ever, much of the analysis on this will be flawed.

Firstly, what is generally missed is that AfD (and to an extent the leftist Die Linke) are protest parties favoured by Easterners.


That point is evident above, although my phrasing is specific – AfD and Die Linke voters even in the West are disproportionately Easterners.

This is important not just for the obvious reason that disenchantment is greater in the former East. The East, in broad terms at least, is different and always was (and this was evident electorally even pre-War and there are obvious historical reasons for it going back centuries). It is inevitably less enamoured with concepts such as the European Union, not just because it was not part of it at the outset, but because it naturally looks East (towards Russia) rather than West (towards France).

German reunification remains a staggering achievement, but the fact remains it was unplanned and was never thoroughly accomplished. Most obviously, Easterners never went through the process of post-War Vergangenheitsbewältigung that Westerners did, and thus have a much lesser sense that they have making up to do. Indeed, they are disproportionately likely to descend from Germans expelled from elsewhere.

Secondly, results like this are often assigned economic reasons. That is a mistake. They have much more to do with an emotional sense that somehow things are changing too quickly and even that identity is being taken away than any rational notion that jobs are less secure and finances less balanced. Germany after all still runs a hefty surplus while maintaining full employment even among young people.

Thirdly, the CDU/CSU did not lose all the votes AfD gained. In fact, it is likely that more of AfD’s extra votes came from the SPD than the CDU/CSU. The latter’s losses will have ended up primarily with the Liberal FDP which, like AfD, just missed out on the 5% hurdle for parliamentary seats last time. There is this bizarre tendency, despite all the evidence to the contrary from all over Europe and beyond, to assume that because we describe parties like AfD as “far right” their gains must come from the “centre right”. Actually as often as not they come from the “centre left”, which is in stark decline in Germany as everywhere else. Presenting the whole thing as linear from left to right hinders our ability to understand just what drives AfD (or UKIP or FPÖ or wherever) voters, most of whom take profoundly left-wing positions on many issues.

Fourthly, describing AfD voters dismissively as “idiots” or even “Nazis” is no way to tackle the problem. It is true that progressive liberal types will never really grasp what causes someone to vote that way. However, we do need to try at least to grasp the issues on which a decision to vote that way are based. If someone tells us that, for example, immigration is an issue, we may well suggest that in fact immigration is a positive; but have we really grasped the issue raised? Perhaps the issue is not so much immigration itself, but the consequences for people in certain types of community who feel that community is changing to their detriment? How do we address that, if we are ourselves not from that community?

In conclusion, the election campaign was very boring but the result suggests a Germany which is not as at ease with itself as many outsiders assumed. Of course, 87% of voters did not vote for the nationalist populists, and we should note that. But Germany is a country where divisions still run deep, and this election has brought them into the open. They will have to be addressed in a way more managed than reunification was 27 years ago next week.

What is a “Protected Voluntary Coalition”?

Something being considered by some commentators to break Northern Ireland’s institutional deadlock – if not yet by anyone with particular influence – is the notion of a “protected Voluntary Coalition”. This is a slightly odd term, but let us run with it.

Fundamentally, such a coalition would work by running the election of the First Minister and deputy First Minister and allocation of Ministries by d’Hondt as normal (let us leave Justice aside for now). However, if a party refuses to take a seat – even the First or deputy First Minister – this seat simply goes to the next party due it.

Now, in practice this would not work because the result would be horribly lopsided. If, for example, Sinn Féin refused to nominate at all, we would end up with a DUP-SDLP Executive Office but with a DUP-dominated Executive, which would reflect the Assembly as if Sinn Féin weren’t in it (and would thus render Nationalists a small minority – barely, in fact, even the second largest designation).

A crude way around this would be the change the system slightly so that in fact seats were all allocated, as with the deputy First Minister, to the next party due in the same designation as the refusing party. This would not be perfect either as, in theory, it would see the SDLP allocated too early. Nevertheless, it would happen to give a DUP-SDLP Executive Office and three Ministers each (alongside one Alliance) which, funnily, is also the most likely outcome in theory with a pure voluntary coalition. This would be rather unsatisfactory, however.

Another more dramatic option would be to say that if either party due to take First Minister or deputy First Minister refuses, both parties are removed from the system and, in effect, their seats offered to the remaining parties. This would seem ludicrous and yet, with a little ironing, is probably more likely to work than any of the above. It would in fact give an SDLP-UU Executive Office supported by three SDLP Ministers and two each for the Ulster Unionists and Alliance.

The political reality is that this would not be viable, but should an amendment be made (as I have previously suggested for pure voluntary coalitions) that in fact in such a case the office of First Minister and deputy First Minister would simply be left vacant (with Ministers acting collegiately to fulfil the functions of the Executive Office) and perhaps the Justice Ministry allocated in some way, you could end up with an Executive of three SDLP, three Ulster Unionists and two Alliance. Such an Executive would command only thirty seats, but interestingly it would typically require both the DUP and Sinn Féin to vote against its proposals in order for them to fail (in all likelihood). Nor would such a case be anti-democratic – if those charged with governing refuse to do so, it is quite normal to offer the “opposition” the opportunity at least to try before forcing an election.

So, what you might call a “double-protected voluntary coalition”, despite only being a minority government, may not in fact be totally inconceivable. We may not be too far from having to give it a try…

“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.