Archive for the 'Northern Ireland' Category


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%)


N Ireland’s election: the road to nowhere?

Saturday, March 4th, 2017

We look to be heading back to a suspension

Normalcy does not suit Northern Irish politics. A political structure designed to overcome the legacy of the seventeenth century (with a good deal of success, it has to be said), is in severe danger of being incapable of handling the practicalities of the twenty-first.

It’s not unusual for a coalition to break down over some disagreement of policy or administration, and for elections to follow. It is, by contrast, unusual for the parties concerned to be obliged by law to work together again after the election.

Such is the situation in Northern Ireland. The St Andrews agreement means that the largest party in the largest designation – which is likely to be the DUP, as unionists should outnumber nationalists in the new Assembly – will be able to nominate the First Minister. They will nominate Arlene Foster, First Minister before the election and the minister responsible for the RHI scandal. The largest party in the next largest designation – Sinn Fein – gets to nominate the Deputy First Minister. And as this is back with the status quo ante the election, they might well not nominate anyone, which is what they did to prompt the election in the first place.

In any other legislature, discussions would then go on with the other parties to see if either of the big two could form a different coalition or govern as a minority but Ulster doesn’t have any other legislature and those talks can’t happen: the rules are prescriptive and because they’re so prescriptive, there’s probably now at least a 75% chance of a suspension of the Assembly and Executive.

And this is why Stormont isn’t any other legislature and how the shadows of the Boyne still intrude. In a normal polity, the DUP would have suffered from the RHI overspend and lost vote share either to their main opponent (Sinn Fein in this case) or a rival party occupying a similar position on the spectrum (the UUP). In fact, while the DUP share did drop slightly, the higher turnout means that they won a good deal more votes than last May. Incompetence in office remains trivial as against breaking solidarity with the community.

Which is a problem because as long as voters remain stuck so rigidly in the habit of voting on community lines, true accountability will be difficult. Even the theoretical option of switching to another party within the relevant designation is limited when the risk of doing so is that it hands the prestige of being the largest party to the other side. Indeed, as this election has shown, even attempting true accountability risks losing the whole settlement.

Does this matter? After all, Stormont has been suspended before since the end of the Troubles. It does matter. For one thing, the Troubles were never really over: the terror threat within the province is still Severe. But the other reason Northern Ireland might soon be back in the news is Brexit.

The UK’s decision to leave the EU raises a lot of difficult questions about how that will impact north of the border (and indeed, on the border). Will there be a hard border with customs? Will freedom of movement be retained, to the Republic at least? How will customs be applied if the UK leaves the customs union? And so on. The lack of a First Ministerial pair and an Executive will make those negotiations even harder.

That shouldn’t be allowed to continue. There needs to be change and pressure needs to be brought to bear on the DUP and Sinn Fein to share power, either with each other or with smaller parties.

David Herdson


Lucian Fletcher on the latest Northern Ireland assembly poll

Thursday, February 2nd, 2017

Arlene Foster’s personal ratings fall through the floor, but the DUP will bank on fear of a Sinn Fein First Minister to keep their position as lead party in Northern Ireland Assembly

The first LucidTalk opinion poll ahead of the 2017 Northern Ireland Assembly election has been published and one of the most obvious headlines is just how few people are planning on switching their first preference votes, despite the calamitous collapse of the Stormont Executive.

The DUP is down to 26%, just three points lower than they received in 2016. Sinn Fein is at 25%, up one.

This poll will be immediately pounced upon by the DUP and will adorn leaflets all over Northern Ireland as they seek to hammer home their message: “Vote DUP or the Shinners get First Minister”.

In fact, leaving aside the joint nature of the OFMDFM, the current boundaries make it highly unlikely that Sinn Fein will get more seats than the DUP unless they are well ahead in vote share.

The main Opposition parties UUP, SDLP and Alliance are all seeing a small uptick in their poll positions but not to anything like the extent that they would have hoped for, given the reasons for this election.

The leadership approval ratings are interesting. Arlene Foster, former First Minister, is at 22%. The most popular leader is Alliance chief Naomi Long, at 52%. All other party leaders enjoy ratings in the 40s. That the DUP remain as the lead party suggests that the St Andrews amendment over the nomination of First Minister is acting as a firewall for DUP support.

Respected unionist political commentator Alex Kane has also suggested that this race for the First Minister being so ‘close’ on this poll could shift some voters to both the DUP and Sinn Fein. There are more polls to come before the election, which could give some indication as to how far this descends to the usual orange/green headcount.

There is more analysis to be done in terms of transfers. Indications are being hinted at by LucidTalk that there is evidence that some people are more willing to vote tactically against the Executive, rather than along community lines. If the Greens and Alliance rack up decent totals in their weaker areas, so all their transfers are at full value, this could help UUP and SDLP. That final seat in most constituencies might end up being swung for one of the smaller parties. But without a move away from the DUP to UUP to a much greater extent than this poll suggests, the damage done to the DUP will be little more than a flesh wound.

I would suggest that the UUP and SDLP will be quietly devastated by this poll. The mud is being flung at the Executive, the DUP in particular, and is sticking, but most voters are so tribal that they just don’t care. The over-riding feeling is to beat the other side. Corruption is not seen as being quite so bad, as long it’s on ‘our side’.

One staunch unionist told me last week that the money thrown at ‘community halls’ by the DUP’s Paul Givan was well-deserved because ‘the Shinners gave loads to the GAA before’. This mindset is really difficult to grasp from Great Britain. We find it shocking. But this cynical self-interest or ‘cute hoorism’ is something that people in Ireland (both in NI and the Republic) really understand.

So what are my thoughts on the politics from this poll?

I think the DUP would end up somewhere around the 30 (key Petition of Concern number) mark, SF a few back, UUP and SDLP both losing seats with the SDLP worst off. Alliance will probably hold on to their 8 and others will lap up a few.

As I say, it might all look a little better for the SDLP and UUP once transfers are taken into account, but I wouldn’t be holding my breath.Both the UUP and SDLP have internal discontent issues. An election in these circumstances which produces nothing tangible for them could be disastrous.

Lucian Fletcher

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


NEW PB/Polling Matters podcast: May trouncing Corbyn in the polls and why we shouldn’t take the Northern Ireland peace process for granted

Wednesday, February 1st, 2017

This week’s podcast is split into two parts.

On the first part of the show, Keiran is joined by Nicholas Whyte to discuss the upcoming elections in Northern Ireland and the potential impact of Brexit on the province. Nicholas is an expert in politics and elections in Northern Ireland and a visiting professor at Ulster University and has a blunt warning for anyone that is complacent about the peace process there.

On the second half of the show, Keiran is joined by Leo Barasi to discuss the latest Polling Matters / Opinium survey looking at how the two main party leaders (Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn) are perceived. You can see the headline figures above. The survey poses 6 statements to respondents about the party leaders and asks whether they agree or disagree with them. The scores above indicate the ‘net agree’ score achieved, meaning the score you get when you subtract the percentage that disagree from the percentage that agree. Respondents were able to say ‘neither’ or ‘don’t know’ but those scores are not included in the net figure – which is standard practice in such surveys. The survey was conducted over the weekend – which it should be said was not a great one for May given the Trump headlines.


Follow today’s podcast guests


Lucian Fletcher on the implications of the dramatic events in Northern Ireland politics

Tuesday, January 10th, 2017

The resignation of Martin McGuinness means that there is no longer any leadership in the Executive Office of Northern Ireland. The jointly-held nature of the position of First Minister/Deputy First Minister means that with Martin’s resignation, Arlene Foster has effectively been dragged kicking and screaming from office.

For those (most people, I expect) who don’t pay attention to Stormont politics as long as there’s no violence, this is all very odd. The government of Northern Ireland has effectively been brought down by a row over a minor scheme designed to encourage people to swap their boilers that burned fossil-fuels for those burning wood pellets. Seriously.

The scandal turns on the projected overspend of the scheme, which is between £400m and £600m. This stems largely from the removal of clauses that tiered and limited the amount which could be paid out when the scheme was copied from that in place in Great Britain. Why these clauses were removed is unclear and would be one of the key parts to any inquiry.

The RHI scheme was set up during Arlene Foster’s lengthy tenure at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. With much of that work outsources to Invest NI, she probably had the cushiest number in Northern Ireland. She just had to open stuff and announce new jobs. But she clearly took her eye off the ball in terms of policy detail.

Who knew what, when, is something for an inquiry to discover but in Sept 2015 someone finally realised the scheme was badly flawed and they planned to make changes to mitigate the losses. At that stage there was a huge spike in applications for the scheme ahead of any changes being made by the end of the year. Again, why this spike came and who these applicants were are questions that people in Northern Ireland want answered.

Opposition parties want a full independent public inquiry into the RHI scandal. Sinn Fein have proposed something short of this. But all parties (other than the DUP) agreed that Arlene Foster should stand aside during at least the initial stage of an inquiry as it is her actions and those of her officials that are being investigated. Sinn Fein suggested a four-week period, the UUP wanted her to resign completely.

But Arlene Foster sees herself as the Margaret Thatcher of Northern Ireland. She was not for turning. In an extraordinary interview with Sky News she played Arlene buzzword bingo, describing awful events in her childhood, her ‘strong’ leadership of Unionism and, to much incredulity, made claims of misogyny of those attacking her.

The fact that she seemed to turn her, ahem, fire on Sinn Fein suggested to me that she was laying the ground for an election campaign. They were still, at that point, in a joint Executive but I couldn’t really see how Sinn Fein would be able to fail to respond strongly to her while keeping their electorate and, in particular, their membership on side. And so it has come to pass.

Gerry Adams issued a warning at the weekend that Sinn Fein would not allow the situation to go on much longer and it appears Arlene Foster failed to respond. Having dug her trench, it was unlikely she’d climb out of it. The resignation of McGuinness means there is a seven-day period during which Sinn Fein can appoint a Deputy First Minister and keep the show on the road. However, his resignation letter is fairly clear in that they will not be doing that.

In which case, James Brokenshire, the Secretary of State, will have to call for an Assembly election. And here’s where it gets really messy. The Assembly is being reduced at the next election, which isn’t really due until 2020, by one seat per Westminster constituency. Under present boundaries, this means a reduction from 108 to 90. Theorectically, everyone is going to lose. To be honest, that prospect is almost certainly the reason parties have taken a month or so to get into election mode.

Martin McGuinness’ statement yesterday made it very clear that Sinn Fein will only return to the Executive on its own terms. I believe that neither the DUP nor UUP will be able to meet those terms fully. The SDLP should make clear to the electorate that a vote for Sinn Fein is a vote for a long period of Stormont stasis. The UUP will seek to make the Unionist election (elections in NI are largely twin event) about DUP incompetence and arrogance. But even in the unlikely event that the Unionist electorate returns to the UUP and puts Mike Nesbitt into the position of leading that bloc, I struggle to see how he could form an Executive Office with anyone other than Colum Eastwood, the SDLP leader. Eastwood, in turn, surely couldn’t go into office with Arlene Foster.

For completeness, Alliance leader Naomi Long has made a very favourable impression over the previous weeks and I would expect Alliance to hold all of their existing seats. This will by nature of a smaller Assembly make them a stronger partner for either Executive or Opposition in any reconvened Assembly. But the Assembly will not stand or fall on Alliance votes. That’s their inherent problem.

Having read all this, you can probably see the conclusion I am going to make is that an election is highly unlikely to resolve the issue. If (as is highly likely) the DUP and Sinn Fein are sent back to Stormont as the largest parties, the whole circular arguments will begin again and all we will have done is lost a few weeks’ worth more money in all these overly-lucrative boilers. A five-week delay, for instance, would be another £3million of public money in the air. Indeed, the only people an election suits is those who want to delay the inquiry which is needed into RHI. And we won’t really know who those people are until we get the inquiry.

For betting purposes, and I know that this is the point of this site, I cannot see how Arlene Foster becomes First Minister again. I can’t find any markets at the moment but I will be happy to provide any insights I can once they appear, as I’m sure they will once an election comes.

Lucian Fletcher

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