Archive for the 'Northern Ireland' Category


The coming West Tyrone by-election would only matter if the winner took his/her seat at Westminster

Monday, January 15th, 2018


The seat will have land border with the Irish Republic and EU following Brexit

At last we have the first by-election of the 2017 Parliament. It is in West Tyrone in Northern Ireland where the sitting Sinn Fein MP has decided to resign following controversy over things that he posted on the internet.

Given that following his party’s normal practice he has never taken his seat at Westminster the margins from last June look so great that the coming battle seems largely irrelevant.

The only way that could change would be if Sinn Fein changed its boycott policy or else another Republican was allowed to stand. Clearly the numbers show that there is little potential here for the DUP or any of the protestant parties.

With Brexit getting closer by the day and the Irish issue looming large I wonder whether we could in fact see some other candidate emerge who would want to take up the seat at Westminster. Given the tightness of the Conservative position that could make things a little bit more pressured for Mrs May and her team.

It used to be that there was a range of nationalist MPs elected in Norther Ireland but over the years they have all been replaced by SF who don’t sit. The effect of this is that the Ulster Catholic community has been without a political voice in London for many years.

This could be the election to change that but I don’t think it will.

Mike Smithson


Iff this is true then the chances of a 2018 general election have increased, the DUP will bring down Mrs May’s government

Monday, December 4th, 2017



The Irish border issue has the potential to bring down Mrs May’s government

Friday, December 1st, 2017

The DUP are revolting and they could make Corbyn PM

Yesterday it was reported by several outlets

The Democratic Unionist Party has warned it may withdraw its support for Theresa May’s government if Northern Ireland is treated as a separate customs and trading regime after Brexit.

DUP MP Sammy Wilson suggested any attempt to “placate Dublin and the EU” over the Irish border could mean its ten MPs no longer prop up the Tories at Westminster.

The party ratcheted up the pressure on Thursday amid attempts to avoid a deadlock over a potential “hard border” between the north and south of Ireland.

Reports had suggested the government was preparing to agree that trading relations in some areas, such as agriculture and energy, would remain harmonised between Northern Ireland and the EU after quitting the EU. 

One of the axioms of politics is that the DUP will never make Jeremy Corbyn Prime Minister, but then I remember the DUP went into coalition with Sinn Féin at Stormont and made the reputed former second-in-command of the IRA in Derry the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, if the DUP can do that then they can make Jeremy Corbyn Prime Minister, either directly or indirectly.

As Stephen Bush notes ‘The Democratic Unionist Party are also virulently opposed to anything which weakens the connection between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. As for which they care about more, the clue is in the title: it’s the maintenance of the United Kingdom, rather than the frustration of one sixty-something political leader.’

So what are the betting implications of all this? Potentially bad news for those of us who have been laying Jeremy Corbyn as next Prime Minister. We’d also have to re-evaluate our betting position on the year of the next general election. I’d probably want more than 11/4 on a 2018 being the year of the next general election. I’m not sure I could cope with a general election next year.

Who would have thought the Tories might be the facilitators of the weakening of The United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland and making Jeremy Corbyn Prime Minister?


PS – Nigel Dodds of the DUP has pointed out another fundamental problem with the government’s proposals.


A New Ireland?

Sunday, November 26th, 2017

There is no word for schadenfraude in Gaelic, or English, for that matter. Still, the Irish can be forgiven for feeling more than a touch of it as their needs seem to be one of the key – and very possibly the hardest – of issues to be resolved in the Article 50 negotiations. It is probably fair to say that of all the issues which exercised voters over the years in relation to the EU and Britain’s role in it (immigration, control over laws, the right to have a free trade agreement with nameless faraway countries, the amount paid to the EU), the effect on Ireland of our EU membership and possible departure was not high on the list.

The idea that the Irish might veto the start of trade talks has triggered a bout of condescending fury amongst certain newspapers and politicians. How dare a small poorer island so dependent on Britain challenge Britain’s right to determine its own destiny in whatever way it sees fit? Such impertinence! And yet, impertinent or not, British politicians now face having to grapple with how to accommodate Irish interests and the minutiae of Irish politics, both north and south of the Irish border, a task made even harder by the government’s dependence on DUP votes for a majority.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this has come as an unwelcome surprise to many of the romantically optimistic Brexiteers, reinforced by a perception that in the 17 months since the referendum the hard thinking about how to reconcile the government’s preferred Brexit with the Northern Ireland agreement, the CTA and all the other ties that bind Ireland and Britain simply has not been done.

It is not the first time, of course, that the question of Ireland has dominated – or persisted like a recurring bout of shingles in – English politics.

From Tudor times onwards, no English government has been able to ignore Ireland. Indeed, a policy for Ireland was essential Mostly, this was for strategic reasons to protect Britain’s flank from Continental invasion, often aided by the rebellious Irish (Wolfe Tone). Sometimes it was because the very existence and legitimacy of the English constitutional settlement depended on victory in Ireland (the Battle of the Boyne).

On occasion the constitutional settlement was changed as a result of events in Ireland (the Act of Union). And ever since the Reformation, the religious question added an extra level of friction which poisoned Anglo-Irish relations in a way which it is hard for a largely secular society accustomed to a mildly apologetic Anglicanism to understand. And throughout, always, the question of land: who owned it, who benefited, who was dispossessed, who could live on it, how many mouths it could feed – or, tragically, not. A question which, together with Irish demands for a form of self-government, took up a significant amount of Parliamentary time and governmental energy throughout the 19th and early 20th century, in a way unimaginable today.

The Irish question was never a sideshow, much as some might have wished it so. A small country on the edge of a great Empire, an island whose main export was its people, almost in spite of itself, punched above its weight in its impact on the politics and culture of its dominant neighbour.

And even in the last century when Ireland (or the greater part of it) broke away, Irish nationalism continued to have an impact, though less on Parliament and more on those institutions which underpin or support the rule of law and security: the army (the Curragh Mutiny and the Tory party’s support for violent resistance to Parliamentary decisions are an ironic counterpoint to the current Labour leadership’s past support for violent Irish nationalism, though Corbyn is unlikely ever to draw attention to it.)

The police and English judiciary (whose investigations of terrorist crimes and responses to miscarriages of justice in the 1970’s were not their finest hour) and the Northern Irish authorities, whose behaviour resulted in Britain being found guilty of degrading and inhumane treatment.

It is not surprising that having finally put this bloody and neuralgic history behind it, best exemplified by a few well-chosen words by HMQ at Dublin Castle and a symbolic bow before a memorial to the dead, Ireland should feel so concerned by the prospect of a reintroduction of hard borders and all that this entails.

So. Can Britain learn any lessons from this long shared history? Might it too now become once again an island country on the edge of a large dominant polity but punching well above its weight? The romantically nostalgic Brexiteers must hope so.

Or is another Irish example its more likely future? The example set by the Ireland of the 20th century, perhaps? A country which, after barely taming its internal divisions following its messy departure, retreated into itself, played little part in world affairs, seemed content with a traditional and stifling cultural zeitgeist (recently revealed to have hidden a multitude of sins), exported its young, was seen as a problem by its neighbours (when they were wearily forced to pay it attention) and only rediscovered its mojo when it rejoined a larger stage.



Quantum physics could have the answer to Brexit’s Ireland problem

Saturday, October 14th, 2017

Perhaps Schroedinger’s Border Guards should patrol the Customs Union

Brexit will happen. As Alastair Meeks sensibly pointed out here yesterday, there’s a good, clear case that Article 50 is not revocable. Britain could ask for an extension to the talks but the PM has been clear that she doesn’t intend to do so and in any case, a delay is not a reversal of course. In practice, the transitional arrangement might look very much like continued membership but even that will have an expiry date, presumably one that’ll be written into the Exit Agreement.

All of which assumes we get an Exit Agreement. That’s far from certain as the two sides continue to talk at cross purposes, becoming irritated with each other in the process as neither understands why the other won’t be reasonable. It’s a microcosm of why the difference in philosophical understanding of what the EU is propelled Britain to leave in the first place.

Diplomacy should, however, prevail in the end on two of the three outstanding points. The financial settlement may prove a lot easier than many expect. Now that Britain is looking for membership-in-all-but-name during the transitional period, the likelihood is that the UK will pay very close to what it’s already doing in order to get that – which also has the happy benefit of seeing the EU through to the end of (and slightly beyond) the current Budget Framework. The debate about bar bills won’t apply. There will still be some legacy costs to sort out – pensions, for example – and opt-in costs for individual programmes but they shouldn’t be insurmountable.

Similarly, the question of citizens’ rights should really have been resolved already. Both sides recognise the need to do so and (in theory) accept the principle of reciprocity – though the EU wants the ECJ to guarantee the rights on both sides, which is hardly reciprocal. Sorting out the precise terms shouldn’t be beyond the wit of the two teams.

The tricky one – indeed, potentially the fatal one for the talks – is Ireland. Here, the contradiction in objectives seems on the face of it insurmountable. The British government wants to leave the Customs Union, which implies those entering it must cross a regulated border, but both sides want frictionless trade between North and South of the island.

The simple solution would be to not leave the Customs Union. After all, it’s the Single Market which holds most of the objections for Brexiteers. The Customs Union imposes some restrictions but if the 16 months since the referendum are anything to go by, that slew of new and improved trade deals looks a forlorn hope. However, to say that would be to admit defeat which the government won’t want to do, for reasons that aren’t all bad. To make a major concession there while the EU gave nothing would be to invite continued intransigence from Brussels on the false expectation that Britain will fold on issues that really are red lines.

So if that option’s off the table, how to square the circle? The simple answer is: don’t. Let the circle and the square coexist.

The assumption is that if Britain leaves the Customs Union then there must be a hard border. In fact, that’s not entirely true anyway: there isn’t a solid border between Norway and Sweden, and Norway is outside the CU. But putting technology aside, why need there be a border at all?

At this point, lawyerly types and bureaucratic logicians will talk about the integrity of the CU, about ‘back doors’ and so on, and yes, in terms of a consistent regime across the Union, they have a point. But only a bit of a point. For one thing, if you were going to import Chinese toasters into Germany, would you really sail to Belfast, transport them by road through to, say, Rosslare or Cork, sail (on a ferry) to Cherbourg or Roscoff, then have them driven hundreds of miles more across the continent? The logistical costs would outweigh any customs saving.

Some will also make the point that if Britain unilaterally gives Ireland a favourable deal then other countries could bring a case against it at the WTO, on the grounds that they’re being discriminated against. They could, but it’s not a slam-dunk. For a start, Britain already has a trade deal with Ireland, dating from 1965. Now, I’ll admit that I’ve not had time to go through the text of that treaty, nor have I found evidence either way as to its status after both countries joined the EEC. It could be that it was formally ended in 1973. On the other hand, if it was simply allowed to fall into abeyance because the two countries’ membership of the EEC superseded it, then on Britain’s withdrawal, it could be argued that Britain has the right to renew the terms, particularly where they are favourable to Ireland.

Even if that’s not an option because the treaty was annulled, there still remain the Agreements that form the Northern Ireland Peace Process, which provide for all sorts of frameworks within the British Isles and within Ireland. In particular, within the Introduction to the section containing the agreement between the two governments within the Good Friday Agreement, it states:

Wishing to develop still further the unique relationship between their peoples and the close co-operation between their countries as friendly neighbours and as partners in the European Union; Reaffirming their commitment to the principles of partnership, equality and mutual respect and to the protection of civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights in their respective jurisdictions;

A little imaginative interpretation there and it could be taken to mean that imposing a border would run counter to the commitment to ‘develop still further the unique relationship between their peoples’ and that a hard border would run counter to ‘the protection of economic rights’. With pre-existing treaties in place, there would be no illegal discrimination against third countries.

All of this is, of course, from the British side. Britain could decide to have no patrolled border but that still doesn’t necessarily get Ireland off the hook. It would still be supposed to enforce the Customs Union. However, to do so would be grossly detrimental to some of the poorer parts of the country. The best option would be to simply leave it as an anomaly. The EU is good at coming up with names to describe anomalies. I’m sure it could be granted some special and unique status.

Perhaps it could be called a superpositional border; one which is simultaneously both there and not there. A legal paradox but an acknowledged one. Quantum mechanics contains such a concept; it’s how Schroedinger’s Cat is both alive and dead at the same time. The trick, in that case, is not to inquire as to the health of the cat. With Ireland, the best option is to not ask about the border.

David Herdson


Cost to tax-payers of TMay’s calamitous election decision and terrible campaign: £1bn

Monday, June 26th, 2017

This gives the Tories an effective majority of 15

A deal has been done. The Tories are to be propped up in Parliament by the 10 DUP MPs who have negotiated a £1bn deal for the province.

So TMay’s party will be able to struggle on although the parliamentary arithmetic still looks tight and is nothing like as comfortable as during the 2010-2015 CON-LD coalition. We are going to see some very tight Commons votes with the opposition parties seeking to ambush the government all the time. It is not going to be comfortable being an MP.

As well as the controversial cash payment Team May has had to cut some of the manifesto commitments such as abandoning the pensior trip lock, the move against the winter fuel payment and the social care plans.

In return the DUP will support the Tories over the Queen’s Speech, in confidence motions and on budgets. The combined CON+DUP contingent is 328. My calculation is that with Sinn Fein MPs continuing their refusal to take up their seats the Tories have an effective majority of 15 for the key votes.

This should create some stability though the SNP are going to put a lot of pressure on the Scottish Tory MPs who were elected two and a half weeks ago.

The deal makes an early election much less likely which has been reflected in the betting.

Whether it secures the future of the person who created this mess for the blue team, Mrs. May, is hard to say. It was her decision to go for an election three years early and her lack of campaigning skills that lost the party its working majority.

As for where the £1bn comes from – that’s likely to be a contentious issue whenever the Tories try to bring in any cuts.

Mike Smithson


Northern Ireland: Calls for ‘united Unionism’ simply don’t add up

Monday, March 6th, 2017

Unionism is at a crossroads. But that crossroads has a clear signpost. The signpost was the 2017 Assembly election.

Make no mistake, 2017 was a bad election, indeed a terrible election for Unionism. Of the 18-seat reduction caused by the 2016 Act, 16 were lost by Unionists.

But look at why those seats were lost. They were lost because Sinn Fein were able to tap into an angry Nationalist pool of voters, stirred up by the intemperate language of Arlene Foster and others within the DUP. The DUP leadership goaded the Nationalist voters to the polls.

The Ulster Unionist Party lost four seats because of the reduction in overall seat numbers. Additionally, it lost seats in West Tyrone, Mid Ulster and Newry and Armagh because of Arlene Foster and where the party was directly in competition with the DUP in East Antrim it gained a seat.

The DUP lost out largely because they were in such a dominant position. They were looking to hold three seats in a large number of constituencies and failed to do so in all but Strangford. They additionally lost seats in Fermanagh and South Tyrone and Belfast South largely because they are a party which struggles to win over high preference transfers from smaller parties.

Vote transfers are a hot topic at the moment. But the voting system is not going to be changed any time soon. Instead of railing against the system, we have to work with it.

Which is why the call for a single, united Unionist party is crazy. It could have some limited and temporary success in Westminster elections but Nis Westminster MPs are lost in a sea of English ones. They can occasionally hold a whip hand over a government, but with Corbyn determined on a course towards oblivion for Labour, it’s unlikely that NI’s MPs will be needed by anyone for a while.

So the STV-based Assembly maths is crucial. For Unionism as a whole to seek to coalesce around the most transfer-toxic of all the political parties in Northern Ireland would be lunacy. The Ulster Unionist Party has clearly made itself more transfer friendly in recent years. In a decent number of seats, it is within shouting distance of either a first or a second seat. Seats that could at least keep the Unionist bloc ahead or on a par with the Nationalist one for a decent period of time.

If the two current larger parties again fail, there is the obvious possibility of a move to the centre. A Unionist party has to be holding ground there for that not to be a total disaster for the Unionist electoral position. So the UUP disbanding and being folded into the DUP would be an abrogation of responsibility.

It also totally ignores the fact that a number of UUP members are not unionists to the detriment of all else. Many would feel more comfortable in Alliance than in the DUP. A number of their voters would feel the same way. The crude maths that DUP+UUP = Win is moonshine.

Arlene Foster has presented herself as the vision of a strong Unionist leader. She is nothing of the sort. She has led Unionism to the edge of the cliff. It is up to the members of the unionist parties to decide which way they go down from there.

The UUP will be choosing a new leader soon. I will post again once the candidates are revealed and we get Paddy’s odds (assuming a market is opened).

One small point on the politics of the ‘other side’ in the NI equation. The SDLP recovery was based almost entirely on being transfer friendly and piggybacking on a Nationalist surge. Their vote share actually fell. While they have a talented team, they hold a number of seats narrowly.

Lucian Fletcher

Lucian Fletcher is a long standing contributor to PB who lives in Northern Ireland.


Northern Ireland Assembly Election Result : March 2nd 2017

Saturday, March 4th, 2017

Changes in seats are based on readjusted Assembly calculations

Unionist Bloc
Democratic Unionist Party 227,270 votes (28.26% -0.90%) winning 28 seats (-6 seats)
Ulster Unionists 103,314 votes (12.84% +0.28%) winning 10 seats (unchanged)
Traditional Unionist Voice 20,523 votes (2.55% -0.87%) winning 1 seat (unchanged)
Progressive Unionist Party 5,590 votes (0.69% -0.16%) winning 0 seats (unchanged)
Northern Ireland Conservatives 2,399 (0.30%, no candidates in 2016) winning 0 seats (unchanged)
United Kingdom Independence Party 1,579 votes (0.20% -1.26%) winning 0 seats (unchanged)
Total Unionist Vote: 360,675 votes (44.84% -2.62%) winning 39 seats (-6 seats)

Others Bloc
Alliance Party 72,716 votes (9.04% +2.07%) winning 8 seats (unchanged)
Green Party of Northern Ireland 18,527 votes (2.30% -0.39%) winning 2 seats (unchanged)
Independent candidates 14,407 votes (1.79% -1.47%) winning 1 seat (+1 seat)
Other Parties 2,534 votes (0.32% -1.30%) winning 0 seats (unchanged)
Total Other Vote: 108,184 votes (13.45% -1.10%) winning 11 seats (+1 seat)

Nationalist Bloc
Sinn Fein 223,401 votes (27.77% +3.77%) winning 27 seats (+2 seats)
Social Democratic and Labour Party 95,958 votes (11.93% -0.07%) winning 12 seats (+3 seats)
People Before Profit Alliance 14,100 votes (1.75% -0.23%) winning 1 seat (unchanged)
Cross Community Labour Party 2,009 votes (0.25%, no candidates in 2016) winning 0 seats (unchanged)
Total Nationalist Vote: 333,459 votes (41.46% +3.47%) winning 40 seats (+5 seats)

Party Swing: 2.34% from Democratic Unionist to Sinn Fein
Bloc Swing: 3.05% from Unionist to Nationalist

First Preference Wins on current constituencies: DUP 11 (unchanged), Sinn Fein 7 (+2)
Northern Ireland Assembly 2017 : First Preference Votes by Constituency

First Preference Wins on proposed constituencies: DUP 8 (unchanged), Sinn Fein 9 (+1)
Unionist Constituencies: Antrim East, Antrim West, Belfast East, Down West, Antrim South, Down North, Strangford, Dalriada
Nationalist Constituencies: Belfast North West, Belfast South West, Newry and Armagh, Down South, Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Tyrone North, Foyle, Glenshane
Too close to call: Upper Bann and Blackwater (Unionist 47.83%, Nationalist 46.35%)