Tuesday, 19 July 2016

In Defence of Small Nations

At dusk on Friday the first of July – one hundred years to the day after the start of the Battle of the Somme – I paid a short visit to the war memorial in the centre of Derry. I scanned through the hundreds of names inscribed on the monument and came to my great-uncle’s. Sergeant Denis Roddy was a Lewis gunner in the Royal Irish Fusiliers, and he died on the Western Front on September 4th 1918.

Not for the first time, I wondered why one of my ancestors would have donned a British army uniform and fought overseas in one of the bloodiest conflicts in history. I know that young Irishmen like Denis were told that the war was being fought to defend their faith and to defend small nations.

Two days before the recent EU referendum poll, prominent Labour Brexiteer Gisela Stuart claimed: "We can take back control over our laws. We can take back control over taxes. We can take back control over our borders, immigration policy and security."

As I listened to her, I wondered who exactly she meant by ‘we’. A week of Tory bloodletting and an insurrection in the Labour Party have ensured that the Conservative Party will be in control of our laws, our taxes, our borders, our immigration policy and our security for the foreseeable future.

No doubt Ms Stuart would defend this outcome by saying that "the people have spoken". Indeed they have. But so have the peoples of Northern Ireland and Scotland  – and with a different voice.

Ms Stuart, who felt so aggrieved at the ‘control’ that Brussels exercised over UK citizens’ lives, should sympathise with us now. Momentous decisions which affect our lives will be made by Conservative politicians in Westminster who have no more mandate to govern us than the Brussels bureaucrats Ms Stuart disparaged.

Today, the minister overseeing the UK’s exit from the European Union, David Davis, will talk to NI’s first and deputy first ministers by telephone. It should be a strange conversation. Mr Davis was an ardent advocate of Brexit, but his boss – the new prime minister, Theresa May (as well as her predecessor, David Cameron) – thought it was overwhelmingly in Northern Ireland’s best interests to remain in the EU.

When Arlene Foster speaks to Mr Davis, she will be at odds with the deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness, and out of step with the majority of Northern Ireland voters. Mrs Foster believes, as she is entitled to, that Brexit will be better for Northern Ireland. Most of us disagree. A majority of Scots think they, too, will be worse off.

Two years ago, as Britain commemorated the start of the First World War, David Cameron said that some of the principles that soldiers — like my great uncle Denis and others — had fought for were still relevant. He said men rallied to the cause of stopping one big European power "snuffing out" a small country like Belgium. He said "small countries had a right to their independence and existence".

His successor, avowed unionist Mrs May, should tread carefully. The British government’s handling of the EU membership issue will have profound consequences for the integrity of the United Kingdom in the long term.

With Scotland and Northern Ireland having rejected Brexit so emphatically, it will be interesting to see how far the rights of small nations are respected and protected now.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

The Whiff of Change

We were promised a Fresh Start and a fresh start is what we got. Eight new departments, eight new ministers, even five new faces.

If this was meant to be a fresh start, why is there such a bad smell this morning?

The new-look Executive, unveiled yesterday, tantalised us with the prospect of a new era in northern politics, but when it came to Justice it was the ‘same old same old’.

If this was meant to be a fresh start, why is there such a bad smell this morning?

The Good Book warns us that a house divided against itself cannot stand, and the new Justice Minister, Claire Sugden, will be a looming reminder of that division every time the new Executive meets. All the swagger, bravado and chutzpah in the world cannot hide the crack.

Ms Sugden’s presentation in the temple by the First and Deputy First Ministers caught many by surprise. It shouldn’t have. The Justice post had been hawked around Stormont for days – with no other takers.

The previous incumbent, who has spoken of “significant – very significant – challenges ahead” in Justice, would have signed up, but the price he demanded was too exorbitant for the ‘Big Two’ parties.

The East Londonderry MLA’s no-strings-attached acceptance of the poisoned chalice is perplexing. During her short Stormont career she had railed against the previous administration. “This house of cards is falling,” she had warned, “and good will come of that only if the jokers at the top come crashing down too and do not get up again.”

How strange that Ms Sugden is now the keystone holding the house of cards together – the one helping the ‘jokers’ up again. Had she declined the offer, the vacancy would have provided an immediate and searching test of the DUP and Sinn Féin’s real commitment to Fresh Start.

The former politics student, who got them off that hook, will now get an insight into politics that no university education could offer. For the moment Ms Sugden finds herself in a luxurious position: the ‘jokers’ – the two most ruthless parties in Stormont – need her more than she needs them. No wonder they flaunted her so triumphantly – like an It’s A Knock-out joker – before the media yesterday.

But it’s a long and hazardous road. Luckily, ahem, she’ll have two DUP MLAs ‘minding her back’ as chair and deputy-chair of the Justice Committee.

Eventually, of course, there will be a day of reckoning at the polls, when her supporters in East Londonderry – who backed her precisely because of her independence – will decide whether her decision was a judicious one.

In affirming the terms of her Pledge of Office, the new minister promised, among other things, to promote equality and prevent discrimination. Ironically, though, her elevation was only possible because of an elaborate contrivance to keep Sinn Féin at the back of the Justice bus.  

On the most optimistic reading, the fact that the ‘Big Two’ parties are, at least, prepared to hold their noses, do business, and try and tackle the many difficulties which confront us is promising. The problems will come thick and fast, though. Cutbacks. Austerity. Hospital waiting lists. Job losses. Abortion. Academic selection. Corporation Tax. Roads. Universities. Flags. An Irish Language Act. And an Official Opposition dogging the Executive along every tortuous step.

Fresh start or false start? Time will tell. The clock is ticking. The brave new dawn is still a long way off. And the smell lingers.

Friday, 20 May 2016

Seats, Chutes and Leaves

“We’re in control. We know exactly what we’re doing.”

Those nine words – uttered by Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, as he stood alongside First Minister Arlene Foster on the steps of Stormont Castle yesterday – show precisely why the SDLP had no real option but to follow the Ulster Unionists into Opposition and why the Alliance Party cannot credibly join the next Executive.

This will be a Programme for Government crafted entirely by the two largest parties. They “know exactly” what they’re doing. Nothing the smaller parties said to the ‘big two’ during a two-week negotiation was going to knock them off course. With 53% of the vote and 66 seats between them, they have been given a resounding mandate to do whatever it is they know they’re doing. The rest of us, like the smaller parties, will just have to suck it up.

The DUP and Sinn Féin manifestos for the 2016 Assembly election were so similar in major respects that their leaders might have been yanked out of their chairs by the ear for copying. Clearly, this Programme for Government has been a long time in the cooking, with only a select few allowed into the kitchen.

The charge that the SDLP is “walking away from” power-sharing and the Good Friday Agreement simply doesn’t stack up. This isn’t power-sharing, it’s job-sharing. The clue is in the words, “We’re in control.”

Some are hailing this moment as the arrival of ‘normal’ politics in Stormont. It is transformational, certainly, but there’s nothing ‘normal’ about it (except by Northern Ireland standards). We will still have two parties in control – in this case two parties without the cover provided by the proximity of their closest rivals and which, frankly, still detest each other.

Never mind that there are some in the DUP who still won’t shake the Deputy First Minister’s hand; the First Minister still won’t countenance the idea of Sinn Féin holding the sensitive Justice ministry. Now, it appears, we have the Green Party’s representatives and Independent MLA, Claire Sugden, being tantalised with that poisoned chalice (surely it would prove electorally fatal for the former?).

Ask yourself these questions: do the DUP now trust their partners in government; and do Sinn Féin want to make Northern Ireland work? These two parties find themselves strapped together – dare I use the phrase ‘inextricably linked’? – like sky-divers sharing a single chute, mandated to govern us for the foreseeable future.

Let’s revisit those comments by the Deputy First Minister. “We’re in control. We know exactly what we’re doing.” That's democracy.

In control? Really?

Our budget is allocated for the most part by an administration at Westminster that looks even more riven than ours (we can’t even be sure who’ll be leading it in five weeks’ time) and which is wedded to the idea of austerity. And as for knowing what they’re doing, have the DUP and Sinn Féin now agreed that lower Corporation Tax here is affordable and will be introduced in this mandate? Have they agreed to prioritise job creation in our unemployment blackspots – Foyle, West Belfast and North Belfast? And – all politics being local – have they agreed a ‘Derry deal’?

As they fling themselves from the airplane into the wide blue yonder, strapped together for a perilous descent, supporters will hope they really do know what they’re doing. And I hope that one or other has remembered to check that there’s a parachute in the bag.