Archive for the 'Northern Ireland' Category

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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




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A Nation once again? – Part 3 lessons from abroad

Monday, October 22nd, 2018

In the final of three articles Alanbrooke looks at Irish affairs

There are numerous examples of states being put together in modern times.  The closest and probably most studied is Germany. It is almost at 30 years since the wall came down so there is quite a period to look at. The situation is also not that dissimilar to Ireland  – a larger more prosperous neighbour takes over its sizeable but smaller struggling neighbour.  How has Germany fared?

Unity is claimed  to have cost Germany something in the region of € 2 trillion. Much of that was spent on upgrading eastern infrastructure but a not insignificant amount was needed to pay for unemployment subsidies and social welfare as the economy adjusted. It’s hard not to see Northern Ireland needing a comparable level of support. 

Overall unity has been a success for Germany, though the benefits have flowed largely to the west rather than the east. The east despite heavy investment has seen its towns empty, its young people move west and a consequent drop in population. While unity has worked for Germany arguably this is less so for the east.

This divergence is showing up in the German political arena. The east now votes very differently to the west and backs more extreme parties in the AfD and Die Linke who currently account for nearly 50% of votes in the former DDR.

In an Irish context Ulster already starts from voting for extremes and if Germany is a pattern the extremes are more likely to consolidate their support.  Ireland as a whole would need to learn to live with views, and eventually governments , people in South Dublin would find abhorrent. 

Indeed one of the constants for countries stitched  together is they carry their scars. The USA is still digesting the legacy of the confederacy, Italy its North and South and the Irish Republic itself lives with politics from 1921.

The German model shows us  unity is expensive, you have to live with scars which will change the politics of country and while it can be successful it may not be successful for everyone. Behind the early optimism came a period when reality sunk in. 

The problems were more entrenched than people thought,  all those new voters had been sold a dream, and 50 years of living apart meant big gaps in a shared history. Germans overall think unity has been a good thing, but they are not without reservations on how it has played out.

Ultimately for  the RoI unity will be a heart  versus mind  matter.  Unfortunately for now while the heart is pulling the strings the mind appears to be sitting this round out. Varadkar and Coveney have been disasters for Irish relations with the British communities.

The hard work of Mary MacAleese and Enda Kenny to normalise relations with the UK has been put in to reverse gear. I struggle to see how winding up unionists you hope will be a sixth of your electorate makes much sense. Equally there has been little preparation of the Southern electorate for what they are being asked to take on economically, culturally or politically and the impact that will have on their daily life. 

It’s too early to say if Unity would work for Ireland, but  one thing is certain without adequate preparation it is a major risk for an otherwise comfortable, prosperous state. If the optimists are right they can learn from Germany and make it a success – but even Germany accepts it still has major problems. 

If the optimists are wrong the  model won’t be Germany but Italy where 150 years after the euphoria  of unification the prosperous regions wonder why the ever took on their curious countrymen in the Mezzogiorno with its alien customs, violence and shifty politicians.  Belfast, twinned with Leipzig  or Palermo ?

Alanbrooke

Alanbrooke is a longstanding poster on PB as well as a Northern Irishman.



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A Nation once again?  Part 2 – Culture and politics

Sunday, October 21st, 2018

In the second of three articles Alanbrooke looks at Irish affairs

In the previous article I looked at economics which is quite a hurdle. This article looks at the longer term issue of the impact of putting two sets of people  together. In Ulster the past always lies ahead of us,  so somewhere along the line somebody needs to be squaring circles. The North, trapped in its history and with a victim mentality, somehow needs to fit in to a fast modernising, liberal state which increasingly wants to leave the past behind.

A culture shock is unavoidable – in both directions

The North and South of Ireland are different in approach . Ulster culture is more like lowland scots irrespective of which religion. Ulster people are brusque, to the point and obstinate (with apologies to readers in Ayrshire). 

A northerner can make asking for a cup of tea sound like a threat without realising it. Unsurprisingly the Nordies often grate with their neighbours much like say the Scots with the English and that’s before we get to the historical baggage.

For unionists it’s the ongoing suspicion of nationalist intent. In the Irish Republic the protestant population has crashed by 60% and dwindled from 10% of the population at independence to 4 % now. A civil war and De Valera’s ardently catholic and Gaelic policies didn’t help improve the unionist view. The RoI’s record on its minority doesn’t look great from up North and as they say just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

For nationalists there lurks a recurrent niggle that the Republic abandoned them, that the South did live up to the ideals of 1916. Likewise there is a recognition that some aspects of the UK are superior to RoI, the NHS being top of  the list and that would be unlikely to survive in its current format.

For both communities there lurks the prospect of perceived second class citizenship. Once the dust has died down how does the North come to terms with no longer running (or not) its own affairs? How will  Belfast fare against the all-pervading presence of Dublin a city which has a bigger impact on its hinterland than London does to the UK or Paris to France? And then of course there are the day to day issues of parades, flags, the annually scheduled riots the whole headbanging  nonsense.

The Republic is not going to be too worried about Northern sensitivities, they’re too busy making money. There is already a degree of healthy scepticism about the North and that may just get bigger. Southerners look at the North and can’t understand why they don’t want to get richer. 

If you want some fun type “protestant work ethic” in to an Irish blog, you’ll think you’re in a Surrey golf club. The British government’s overindulgence of NI petulance will disappear and I don’t think any community in the North is ready for this, nor the Irish for the political pushback.

Politics will change  drastically

The politics of a New Ireland would be fundamentally different from the old.  For a start off the electorate has just grown by 40% and they are an awkward lot. The Irish STV system encourages communities to vote as blocks for maximum representation. So it’s fairly likely the unionists will all end up voting for a single party which would have about 15% of the seats.

The injection of Northern votes will also propel  Sinn Fein past Fianna Fail, at which point the old civil war party divisions look even more irrelevant. What is the point to two conservative pro-business parties when the opposition are now left wing populists?

How the electoral arithmetic will work out is hard to say, but it’s likely that at some point in the future either Sinn Fein could be the government or the successors to the DUP could hold the balance of power. At this point the North will take its pound of flesh.

Politically the Republic will be in for a shock to the system.  How this will play out is anyone’s guess.  In an ideal world all would get on together and start making themselves better off. But they should be doing that today and they’re not.  Suffice to note the British population in Ulster who are about 2% of the UK have been a perennial thorn in the side to the British government.

The Republic will be taking on a 40% thorn and this will change the nature of the state materially. Unity will put together two peoples who have big holes in their common history and in some cases have diametrically opposed views. The Republic inevitably will become a bit more like the North with all its consequences.

I often say the NI conflict is the Scots versus the Irish but they’ve both agreed to blame the English. Maybe in the distant future a British PM and a Taoiseach will be sitting in a bar somewhere consoling each other on how hard it is to handle their Scots.

Alanbrooke

Alanbrooke is a longstanding poster on PB as well as a Northern Irishman.