Archive for the 'Northern Ireland' Category

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Brexit is Ulsterising British politics

Saturday, April 20th, 2019

One issue has become so important as to define the entire system

Most people would regard the Good Friday Agreement as a Very Good Thing. Certainly, it was so at the time and 21 years later, that broadly remains so. Despite the continuing background presence of dissident political violence – sadly this week coming into the foreground – the Agreement brought peace and an agreed political structure to the province.

As with much else in Irish politics, the GFA has generated a good deal of myth-making, to the extent that the Agreement is now more conceptual than written; more founded on belief than law. We know that because, for example, the debates over the UK-RoI land border never reference the actual clauses a hard border is claimed to break. The breach is not so much in the text as in what the text represents.

In truth, the Northern Ireland structures and processes that came out of the GFA have never worked particularly well, needed to be re-written and are currently in abeyance: inconvenient facts ignored by those who want to believe in its abiding Goodness, for want of anything better. Turning a blind eye is an essential skill in N Irish politics, and sometimes one that brings a public benefit too.

However, at the heart of those processes is an insuperable barrier to long-term normalisation: the Assembly is built on the concepts of unionist and nationalist communities. Given that the political parties are themselves built on unionist and nationalist programmes, that might seem sensible but the effect is to ensure that that division acquires a reinforcing dynamic and makes any long-term normalisation even more difficult. The GFA does not seek to create one nation; it seeks to manage the relations between two.

As such, a voter more concerned about school standards, economic growth, provision of libraries and parks, or public freedoms has to filter what would usually be social and economic left/right debates through the unnatural prism of unionism/nationalism. If you want to vote Conservative, you might be able to but it won’t get you anywhere; if you want to vote Labour or Lib Dem, you can’t do that at all: you have to vote for ‘sister parties’, which in essence means having to sign up to, respectively, a nationalist or overtly non-aligned agenda. Note that the Alliance Party, while nominally eschewing Northern Ireland’s divisions, still ends up being bound and defined by them.

One unfortunate aspect of Brexit (of many) is an Ulsterising of Britain’s politics at large, in two ways.

The first, and more immediately obvious, is the prominence of the RoI-NI border within the arguments over the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement and the UK’s future relationship with the EU, which has brought the issues in and around Northern Ireland back to the top of the agenda for both government and parliament. This is, of course, compounded by the Con-DUP Confidence and Supply deal and the mathematics within the Commons. British politics is dominated by Brexit (albeit that both are on a necessary, if hardly well-earned, holiday at the moment), and Ireland is central to Brexit.

There is another way in which Britain’s politics is Ulsterising though: public political identity is more attuned to Brexit than to the traditional political parties, and those parties – and the voters backing them – are realigning to reflect that fact.

The Conservative Party is transforming into the Leave Party. That it’s failed to deliver any form of Leave (other than an unratified Agreement no-one much likes and many hate) is at the core of the Tories’ collapse in support over the last 4-6 weeks and what are likely to be May election results that come in somewhere between very poor and disastrous. FPTP will help protect the Tories to some degree in Westminster elections but not in the Euros. The probability is that Theresa May will step down or be forced out this summer and will be replaced by a hard Leaver. It’s possible that such a candidate won’t always have been a hard Leaver but if not, ERG MPs and party members will demand assurances in blood of their conversion to the cause.

As an aside, I’d think about backing the Brexit Party candidate to win any Peterborough by-election at anything over 3/1, given the likely timing of that election, the likely result of the EP elections, and that public realignment.

By contrast, Labour is transforming into a Remain party. Jeremy Corbyn might not be very happy about that but it’s happening all the same and Conference will be difficult for him on this point unless he’s either accepted the need to go along with members or unless he’s greatly enhanced his authority in the interim.

Corbyn, unlike May and her successor, does at least have the advantage that the challenger Remain-Revoke parties are not very good at politics. TIG, or Change, or whatever have completely missed the open goal in making the public case, while rebel Labour and Tory MPs led the parliamentary battle. The Lib Dems are even further out of the game – when did anyone last hear from any of them on or in the media? By contrast, Nigel Farage has once again captured the attention and support of his target audience.

However, Corbyn won’t be around for ever, even if he wins an election and becomes PM. He’s 70 next month and one of the last relics of first-generation Bennism and the Euroscepticism that came with it. His successor will be (and will have to be) far more openly pro-EU.

Sometimes slowly, sometimes much more rapidly, the party system has realigned from class and social/economic policy preferences to Brexit identity. For those primarily interested in domestic policy, this presents the same problems facing the public in Ulster: domestic policies come as part-and-parcel of the overall package but very much secondary. This is going to leave a lot of voters homeless and struggling to find someone to support, whether they be traditional floating voters or those who were previously aligned but have seen their former party unwelcomingly transformed.

For now though, politics is Brexit, and Brexit is Ireland, and politics is Ulsterised.

David Herdson



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Six weeks tomorrow could mark the beginning of the end for the United Kingdom as we know it

Thursday, February 14th, 2019

Pressure for Irish unification could just be the beginning

One of the features of Brexit, particularly a no deal one, is the impact that it could have on the integrity of the United Kingdom.

There has been polling already in Northern Ireland about how people would feel there about the Union in the event of a no deal Brexit. The numbers don’t look good for those backing the union and under the Good Friday Agreement the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland would have to call a referendum if there were strong indications that the public wanted to become part of a united Ireland.

Such a referendum on the unification of Ireland would be a traumatic event and would capture the attention of many parts of the world. You could see American Irish communities being very keen to support the North and the South joining together as one. There’s a reasonable chance that Ireland would vote for unification.

At the same time you could see similar pressure in Scotland for another independence vote and it would be hard for the Westminster Parliament not to agree to it. The chances in such circumstances of a vote succeeding must be quite high.

No doubt the moves in both Scotland and Northern Ireland to leave the United Kingdom would lead to similar pressures within Wales and it’s not beyond the bounds of probability that the Welsh could also go in that direction. The outcome would be that we will be left with just England.

So the stakes are very high in the coming weeks as Parliament decides what to do as MPs ponder whether to back the deal.

An England only problem for LAB is that without Welsh and Scottish MPs it is hard to see it ever becoming top party on seats something that only the hated Tony Blair was able to achieve. Prior to the Scottish IndyRef in 2014 LAB was the overwhelming major force north of the border with 41 of the 59 MPs. It was the loss of many of those seats which undermines Corbyn’s party’s position.

Mike Smithson




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On this day lets not forget the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to the troubled province

Tuesday, January 15th, 2019


Wikipedia

Let’s not forget either the DUP’s popularity within the province

One of the issues with the politics Northern Ireland is that the Republican party, Sinn Fein, refuses to take up its seven seats at Westminster. This means that of the 18 constituencies in the Province seven do not have active MPs. It also means that the only Westminster representation comes from a party that got just 36% of the vote there in June 2017.

This makes the parliamentary representation of opinion in the province rather distorted but there’s nothing that can be done about it because the Sinn Fein stance is central to its core politics.

Throughout the early part of my career the one massive story that dominated British politics was h troubles in Northern Ireland which lead to many deaths and much destruction. The ending of nearly a third of a century of difficulties as a result of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 was a major success that both Tony Blair and John Major can claim credit for.

The DUP, it should be noted, was opposed to the agreement and as can be seen the no side got 28.8% of the vote.

A huge problem is that this was all a long time ago and many current politicians have no real knowledge understanding of its significance.

Mike Smithson




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New Northern Ireland polling suggests that a no deal Brexit could lead to what the IRA never achieved – a united Ireland

Friday, December 21st, 2018

How the Brexit hard-liners are gambling with the Union

Generally speaking Northern Ireland gets ignored in national polls which are confined to England, Wales and Scotland. This is because the party structure in the province is very different with most people voting on sectarian lines.

This Northern Ireland polling from Lucid Talk seeks to test opinion on possible impact of a no deal Brexit on the future of the province and whether there is more or less support for unification with he South.

Lucid Talk is the Ulster’s leading pollster and has been asking its border question for years. The results of its latest survey are very striking and highlight the risk that the UK would be taking if indeed it ended up with a No Deal Brexit.

Amongst the nationalist community 92% said they would vote for a united Ireland and they would be joined that by 10% of the Unionist community.

    The prospect of Irish unification looks set to put a lot of pressure on the government’s supply and confidence partners, the ultra-pro unionist DUP. Are they really going to risk the union in the Commons votes in the New Year?

My guess is not and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them backing Mrs. May. Northern Ireland’s nationalist community does not have any MPs sitting at Westminster. The Sinn Fein ones don’t take their seats.

Mike Smithson




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Why the Northern Ireland border has been such a difficult issue

Tuesday, December 18th, 2018

I’ve just come across an article by John McTernan, Tony Blair’s former director of political operations, which explains very clearly why the Northern Ireland border is such an issue in the Brexit negotiations.

“.. there is no concession that can be given on the backstop or, as it should properly be considered, Northern Ireland. The fundamental problem here is not the intransigence of the Irish government not the trickery of the European Union. It is, put bluntly, because the UK is bound by a peace treaty – the Good Friday Agreement – which ended the 30 years warfare of the Troubles.

The agreement saved lives, and is still saving them, and it dealt with the border – the source of the conflict – in an extraordinary act of imagination. It dissolved it. Not merely within the operation of the EU Single Market but by the UK government repealing the act that partitioned the island of Ireland and by agreeing that the people of Northern Ireland could choose either a British or an Irish passport..”

For many this was all a long time ago but was and remains hugely significant. The agreement was signed in 1998 and most people under 40 have no recollection of the troubles and how they dominated British politics from the late 1960s onwards.

I well remember one of my first jobs as a journalist in Newcastle in the late 1960s being asked to visit the parents of the first British soldier to be killed in the province. A hard task for a 22 year old.

The Good Friday Agreement was massive development and both John Major and Tony Blair are rightly given a lot of the credit. It was approved in referendums on both sides of the border.

Mike Smithson




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The gilded cage. How the DUP are using the new rules of the game to trap the Conservatives

Sunday, December 16th, 2018

Board games are always a good source of arguments. There seem to be as many views on how to play Monopoly as families. Some place all fines in the centre, to be collected by anyone who lands on Free Parking. Some don’t allow rents to be collected in Jail. Views differ on what is to be done with the properties of bankrupt players. It is important to establish the rules in advance if you want to avoid unseemly rows.

Parliamentary politics is often presented as a parlour game. It isn’t: but it has rules. Those rules recently changed in a small but critically important way. Most people haven’t properly thought through the implications of that rule change. Unseemly rows will ensue.

Let’s start with the basics. Government is formed by a Prime Minister who can command the confidence of the House of Commons. Where one party has an overall majority, the leader of that party will get the job pretty much automatically. Where there is a hung Parliament, there is some horse-trading to be done. Parties can form a formal coalition, as happened in 2010, or a minority government can be formed with a smaller party offering only supply and confidence for an agreed programme rather than ministers, as happened in 2017 when the DUP backed the Conservatives.

Such agreements, however, only operate in the sphere of politics. They are not legally binding. The Conservatives found out in 2012 that coalition partners can rat on the deal when the Lib Dems refused to agree to boundary changes. They found out earlier this year that support in a minority government can be just as flaky when the DUP opposed some measures in the budget.

The reason for the DUP’s unreliable behaviour is well-known. The government’s proposed backstop in the withdrawal agreement would change Northern Ireland’s status in a way that they regard as completely unacceptable.  They are out for blood.

In times past, the defeat of the government on central measures like the budget would have led inevitably to its fall, the defeat itself demonstrating that the government no longer has the confidence of the House. The Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011 changed all that though. There is now a formal mechanism for selecting governments and, still more importantly, a formal mechanism for getting rid of governments.

There are exactly three ways of getting rid of a government. The first is that a motion for a general election is agreed by at least two thirds of the whole House (that is what happened in 2017). The second is that a motion of no confidence is passed. The third is if the Prime Minister voluntarily resigns.

What this means is that the DUP can leave the government becalmed in the doldrums, with confidence but without supply. The government cannot call a general election unilaterally. If a vote of confidence is called, the DUP can cheerfully support them in that. Everything else, however, and the government is on its own. Block the Prime Minister’s deal? That goes without saying. Vote down the budget?  Sure. Support Labour in a vote of censure against the Prime Minister? Naturally.

This leaves the government potentially paralysed. Unless it can find alternative support in other votes, the government will be in office but not in power until such time as it does what the DUP wants. Such alternative support will not be easily found or come cheap.

This gives the DUP outsized importance. In many ways they have more power than the ERG, which breaks the Conservative whip only at the risk of losing it, with all of the profound consequences that holds. Maybe the ERG might break away to set up Son Of UKIP but the Rubicon can only be crossed once. Till then, the ERG will need to display a veneer of loyalty to the Prime Minister.

If the DUP want shot of the Prime Minister – and they may – they have a technique to winkle her out of Number 10 without letting Labour in. It may have done Theresa May no practical good at all to have won her party vote of confidence if the only thing she can achieve in the House is to defeat votes of no confidence. If so, sooner or later she or her colleagues are going to need to change strategy or change the leader, or both. The fact that she is bomb-proof in her own party for a year would be an irrelevance.

So what does the government do next? For now, it is putting off the moment of decision. Unable to win the meaningful vote on its deal, it is temporising. There look to be only two ways out of this impasse. The first is to continue to temporise up to 29 March 2019 and hope that the nerves of some Labour MPs will be sufficiently worn that they will cave in and support the deal, with an acceptance that no deal might be the result. The second is to switch tactics and seek to build a cross-party alliance for a referendum, throwing the matter back to the public.

Neither looks appetising for Theresa May. Never one to make choices actively, she might well take the first route by default. Will her colleagues allow her to do so or will she find herself bypassed? We might well find out. Either way, the Conservative party looks set to break.

 

Alastair Meeks




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Can the UK trade under WTO rules and avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland: the WTO Security Exception

Saturday, December 1st, 2018

Of all the issues covered by the 600-odd page Withdrawal Agreement, it is hondootedly Article 6:  “Until the future relationship becomes applicable, a single customs territory between the Union and the United Kingdom shall be established”, or “the backstop”, that causes the greatest angst; critics say it ties the UK into EU customs alignment with no unilateral means of exit and want Theresa May to junk it. Designed to prevent a hard border in Northern Ireland, without the backstop, there is no Withdrawal Agreement or transition period and we crash out next March, likely on WTO terms.

Although the subject of some debate, let’s assume, together with Theresa May’s government, the EU, the RoI, and many people in Ulster, that a hard border in Northern Ireland would be a very bad idea. Can the UK, therefore, crash out “on WTO terms” and avoid one?

Many people, Anna Soubry for example, have said that trading on WTO terms would, ipso facto, require a hard border in Northern Ireland. But this is not the case. The WTO does not require its Member States to secure their borders, or do much at all, apart from follow WTO rules. “Black helicopters of the WTO will not descend”, as the WTO itself puts it, to enforce a border. So how could trading on WTO terms result in a border if the WTO won’t enforce one?

One of those WTO rules concerns non-discrimination, whereby under “most favoured nation” (MFN) principles, all trading partners must be treated equally. Suppose that the UK decided not to put up a border in Northern Ireland and let Irish Republic widgets in unchecked. Meanwhile, widgets arriving in the UK from the United States are subject to controls.

The United States could bring a dispute to the WTO’s Dispute Settlement Body (DSB) citing an MFN violation and claiming that the UK wasn’t treating it fairly. The DSB’s judgement might then agree with the United States (and nearly 90% of the time it has sided with the complainant) that the UK wasn’t treating its trading partners fairly and it could then force the UK either to let United States widgets in unchecked, or to put up border controls at the Irish Border, further reading here.

More recently, the suggestion has emerged that within the WTO rules there is a way to avoid the need to put up hard borders in any scenario. Article 21 of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the Security Exception, says that nothing in the GATT agreement should prevent “any contracting party from taking any action which it considers necessary for the protection of its essential security interests”.

It has been argued that to safeguard peace in Northern Ireland the UK could “self-judge” the issue to be one of national security, invoke Article 21, and thereby not put up a border.

Although at face value this seems attractive, further examination of Article 21 makes it clear that it is designed to protect States in times of war or potential conflict and refers to a very narrow set of circumstances. States are exempt from free trade principles in matters where fissionable materials, arms, ammunition and implements of war are involved, or in times of war.

In fact, one of the rare usages of the Security Exception was during the Falklands war when the EU (EC as was) in support of the United Kingdom instituted a trade embargo against Argentina, claiming they were justified in so doing given the security interests involved and, when Argentina went to GATT dispute, they were rebuffed. Another example was in 1975 when Sweden banned imports of footwear because they believed the effect on domestic production of imports was affecting their ability to produce boots for their armed forces.

What is clear here is that the Security Exception has been used in times of national emergency, or perceived national emergency, to institute not take down trading barriers. Analogously to Nick Boles’ mooted use of the “emergency brake” on immigration, were the UK to join the EEA, those who advocate use of the Security Exception to prevent a border in Northern Ireland are torturing the legislation as it is written to fit their needs.

This is not to say that the WTO couldn’t construct a different exemption which might obviate the need for a hard border in Northern Ireland, but the Security Exception ain’t it. Theresa May has grasped the fact that anything other than the Backstop leaves the door open to a possible route to a hard border in Northern Ireland, and that is why her deal remains the only option available to MPs, come the meaningful vote.

Topping

(Topping is a long-standing PB & ex-Army officer)



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The DUP would be taking a big gamble defying Northern Ireland’s farmers on Brexit

Saturday, November 17th, 2018

The assumption that the DUP will automatically oppose TMay’s Brexit deal might not be the case as pressure is building up amongst the Province’s farmers many of whom support the party.

The Observer is reporting that the powerful Northern Ireland Farmer’s Union has told Arlene Foster’s party that its 10 Westminster MPs should vote for the deal. The report goes on:

“The DUP has threatened to pull the plug on May and vote against the withdrawal agreement on the grounds it would create a “vassal state” and break up the UK.

But the UFU chief executive, Wesley Aston, told BBC Radio Ulster: “We want to make sure we avoid a no-deal situation. No deal for Northern Ireland agri-food and farming in particular would be absolutely disastrous and we have made that patently clear over this last while.”

His comments follow those from the UFU’s Ivor Ferguson that the “sheep industry would be finished” if there was no deal.”

This basically totally undermines the DUP rhetoric and will make it much harder for it to pursue their stated course.

My guess is that we’ll see a lot of pressure like this from all sorts of bodies throughout the UK if the threat of a no deal gathers real momentum.

Mike Smithson