A wee overview of the runners and riders #ae11 #lg11

Okay, I hear you. It’s election time again. You can tell it’s election time because the area’s lampposts are covered with cryptic posters informing the broad masses that the Stickies haven’t gone away. So this is an opportunity to take the north’s political temperature.

That said, it’s been an incredibly dull election, for a number of reasons. One is that, with the Assembly having bedded down to the point of having run a full term, the constitutional question, though it’s still wheeled out, has slid down the list of priorities. Even the TUV’s leaflets have had sections on education and unemployment, and fewer pictures of masked gunmen than you’d expect. And yet, on those famed bread-and-butter issues, there’s very little difference between the parties. The only substantial fights in the Assembly have centred either around post-primary selection (no easy solution, as there’s no cross-party consensus, but there’s no doubt Caitríona Ruane has handled the issue really badly) or else Nelson McCausland’s Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (which has 1% of the Stormont budget but generates 90% of the hot air). So what we’re left with is a dominant DUP-SF axis coasting merrily along, while the UUP and SDLP are reduced to bitching that things were much better when they were the main parties. (They weren’t.)

To the extent that there’s a constitutional aspect, it has to do with the obsession Tom Elliott and Jim Allister have developed with the possibility of Martin McGuinness becoming first minister. I think this is not very smart politics. For one thing, it’s unlikely to happen. For another, McGuinness has said with irritating reasonableness that, if such were to transpire, he’d like to abolish the (basically symbolic) distinction between FM and DFM and have Peter as his joint first minister. Nonetheless, the smaller unionist parties have developed plans of Baldrickesque cunning to prevent this appalling vista. Tom Elliott’s plan is for the DUP and UUP to form a grand coalition after the election for the sole purpose of nabbing the FM slot, after which they could get back to tearing lumps out of each other. Jim Allister’s plan is to get every unionist MLA to swear on the Holy Bible (King James Version) that they won’t consent to be Martin’s deputy, thereby making it impossible for an Executive to be formed and collapsing the Assembly. Peter Robinson’s rather more straightforward plan is to say “Vote DUP”.

And here’s the rub. It’s not merely that Martin as FM is a less scary prospect after four years of him as DFM. (He’s even developed a cult following among a minority of unionists who reckon he’s by far the most effective minister at Stormont.) It’s that everybody who’s really concerned about that issue will be voting DUP anyway. So Peter is happy enough to carry on with his can-do “Let’s Keep Norn Iron Moving Forward” campaign and let Elliott and Allister make the argument for voting DUP.

The final reason why this is a boring campaign is that nobody expects big swings. The two main parties – and you could see this from Peter and Martin’s body language in the UTV leaders’ debate – are expecting to have their dominance in their respective electorates easily confirmed. (Remember that in the north there are effectively two elections, the intra-unionist one and the intra-nationalist one.) Their smaller rivals are down but not out. But there will be movement, and in a PR-STV contest those fifth and sixth seats can go in unexpected ways. So let’s have an overview of what the parties are looking to achieve.

First, an overview. The 2007 Assembly results:

DUP 30.1%, 36 seats; SF 26.2%, 28 seats; UUP 14.9%, 18 seats; SDLP 15.2%, 16 seats; Alliance 5.2%, 7 seats; others 8.4%, 3 seats.

And last year’s Westminster results:

SF 25.5%, DUP 25.0%, SDLP 16.5%, UCUNF 15.2%, Alliance 6.3%, TUV 3.9%, others 7.6%.

As you can see, apart from a minority of the DUP base hiving off to the TUV, not a fierce lot of change, even with two peculiar constituencies having high-polling independents. There’s a basic stability there, and this allows us to have a fairly steady benchmark.

So, to the parties.

The Dupes: The DUP will be looking to retain their position as the biggest party in the Assembly and by far the main unionist party. It’s likely they’ll drop a few seats – they polled extremely well last time, have several vulnerable seats and it’s difficult to see gains for them. This is especially the case as proven vote-getters like Big Ian, Wee Ian, Doddsy, Jeffrey Boy and Singing Willie are not on the ballot this time. They are helped though by having largely contained the TUV threat at the Westminsters and by the continued weakness of the UUP. There’s also the gradual fading into the background of the storm that engulfed Peter Robinson last year, with our tactful local media not tending to harp uncharitably on themes of nymphomaniac wives, teenage restaurateurs, plots of land and five pound notes. Not that this has gone away, but Peter will feel he’s weathered the worst of it. So from a base of 36 seats, it’s quite plausible to see them returning with 33 or thereabouts, and they’d be happy with that.

The Shinners: Sinn Féin, who have sharp antennae for these sorts of things, are not hyping up the possibility of becoming the biggest party. What they want is to get to the magic 30 seats that would get them a petition-of-concern veto in the Assembly, like the DUP already has. This doesn’t require much of a gain, but it’s easier said than done. In the first place, they need to hold all their seats, now a notional 27 after boundary changes in Lagan Valley. Then they need to make gains, but their targets tend to be either improbable long shots (a third in Foyle, a second in East Derry) or blood-from-stone efforts in their heartlands (a fourth in Mid Ulster, a third in the Dreary Steeples). They also haven’t managed to crack the SDLP’s residual areas of strength. That said, I think SF’s unparalleled machine will deliver them one or two gains, but perhaps 29 is more realistic than 30.

The Good Ole Boys: If there’s been any entertainment value in this very dull election, it’s come from the reliably shambolic Ulster Unionist Party, which has scarcely known what to be at since losing its pre-eminence. Reg Empey’s recently concluded leadership had involved a dizzying succession of alliances actual and proposed – with the DUP, the SDLP, the TUV and of course the Tories in the snappily named Ulster Conservative and Unionist New Force – leading one to suppose that Reg was being too clever for his own good. Yes, Reg was full of ideas, it’s just that none of them were very good. But now Reg is awa’ to the House of Lairds, and the Belfast-based ex-Vanguard element who had been running the UUP have been displaced by the new culchie regime of Tom Elliott, John McCallister and Danny Kennedy, in what looks very much like Back To The Future IV: Harry West’s Revenge. The culture shock some urban observers got in the UUP leadership election, when busloads of elderly Orangemen from Tyrone and Fermanagh alighted at the Waterfront Hall to vote for their boy Tom, was highly amusing. And Tom Elliott, though a very nice man at close quarters, hasn’t really set the world alight and is unmistakably what he is, a big farmer from Fermanagh, something that plays very well with the UUP’s rural sector but not quite so well in greater Belfast.

There’s a further point here in that the UUP, always a mess of contradictions, has dissolved into an amalgam of squabbling little local fiefdoms that barely resembles a party. This isn’t merely a question of Basil McCrea and David McNarry hating each other’s guts. In a structural sense, the existence of local fiefs with their own personal followings is the UUP’s strength, in providing an electoral bedrock, but also its weakness, in that it’s almost impossible for it to function as a party. Despite Empey’s organisational reforms, despite managing to get a few fresh faces onto the ballot, the old faces are still there. Moreover, at a time when the party is supposed to be presenting a united face to the electorate, it has proved impossible to stop divers UUP bigwigs phoning the Nolan show and running their yaps without first clearing their bright ideas with the party leadership. Incredibly, the leader himself is prone to do this. Finally, we should note that in this election there are former UUP activists running as candidates for the DUP, the TUV, Alliance and UKIP. You can see why the UUP is compulsive viewing, in a car crash kind of way.

The South Down and Londonderry Party: What the SDLP want is to hold what they have, and get that extra seat (or it may be two, the maths is complex) that would give them a second minister under d’Hondt. Secondly, they want to defend their eponymous strongholds against the barbarian hordes known as Sinn Féin. In both South Down and Foyle they benefited in the Westminsters from unionist tactical voting and from the personal popularity of their candidates. But the real sign of strength in those constituencies is beating the Shinners on first preferences under PR. If SF should get their nose ahead in South Down, for instance, that would clearly mark Margaret Ritchie’s cards.

Ah yes, Margaret. Again, this demonstrates the cultural divide in the SDLP. Alasdair McDonnell would have been a more dynamic leader, there’s no doubt, but had his problems with personal unpopularity in the party, hence Margaret winning as the steady-as-she-goes candidate. The question is whether steady as she goes is a viable path for the SDLP. Already one hears rumblings about Margaret’s leadership and whizzkid strategist Conall McDevitt, and they really need a decent performance to quiet those rumblings down. For the meantime, there probably won’t be much change in the party’s totals, but the long-term prognosis is still dodgy. The SDLP continues to draw many votes from middle-class Catholics who remember with reverence Hume and Mallon, and who note that the SDLP wear nicer suits than the Shinners and are less likely to address the electorate as “youse”. But that vote is aging, it’s vulnerable to SF somehow working out an approach to the Catholic middle class (which they haven’t as yet), and east of the Bann it’s vulnerable as much to Alliance as SF, which may go some way to explain the SDLP’s fulminations against the profoundly inoffensive David Ford. Which brings us neatly to

The Nice People: It’s easy to make fun of Alliance. Their earnestness, their zealous moderation, their unmistakable Cherryvelley ambience. Not to mention that doorstopper of a 148-page manifesto. But, having secured their first Westminster victory last year with Naomi Long’s defenestration of Peter Robinson, they’ve got a bit of wind in their sails. Fordy is talking about them taking nine or ten seats, something that would get them a proper minister under d’Hondt, not just a justice ministry held as a DUP-SF stitch-up. This isn’t impossible. Alliance are very transfer-friendly indeed, their foregrounding in the campaign of Naomi (who isn’t even a candidate) shows a sense of who their popular figurehead is, and their cannibalising of the UUP’s almost defunct liberal wing add up to a party worth keeping a wee eye on. That said, Alliance’s almost total non-existence outside the Belfast commuter belt puts a distinct limit on likely gains.

The Prodiban: There was a time, after Jim Allister polled a whopping 66,000 votes in the 2009 Euro-election, that it looked like the TUV would return a swathe of representatives to Stormont. But the party’s damp squib at last year’s Westminsters have lowered the old sights a bit. It’s almost certain Jim will be elected in North Antrim, but it’s harder to see who might join him. Most TUV candidates last year were polling between 5% and 8% – that is, between a third and half a quota, without many obvious sources of transfers. Let’s assume they do a bit better under PR, especially if the turnout is low – I’m still not seeing that TUV breakthrough, unless David Vance knows something I don’t. Love their election broadcast, though.

The odds and sods: As far as independents and small parties go, their goal will just be to get their foot in the door. It’ll be tough for them, but look out in particular for Dawn Purvis, Alan McFarland, David McClarty and of course Eamonn McCann.

And there’s more.

There is of course also a local government election, the first since 2005 due to interminable wranglings over council rationalisation. This is important because it’ll probably be the last to the current councils, and it’ll be important for the parties to get springboards to bigger councils with higher quotas. It’ll also, if we expect a relatively static Stormont result, give us some clues as to the underlying strength of the parties. The result last time out was:

DUP 29.6%, 182 councillors; SF 23.2%, 126 councillors; UUP 18.0%, 115 councillors; SDLP 17.4%, 101 councillors; Alliance 5.0%, 30 councillors; others 6.8%, 28 councillors.

Two things to watch on both sides of the fence:

Major theme: The DUP polled very well indeed last time, with outright control of three councils and effective control of several others, and may be vulnerable to setbacks, though again the weakness of their competitors stands in their favour. Look out especially for the DUP performances in Castlereagh and Ards, where the Iris Affair is still a big deal locally.

Minor theme: The TUV will find it tough going at Assembly level, and will be hoping a reasonable return of councillors will give it a platform to build from. Look out for Ballymena and Ballymoney.

Major theme: Sinn Féin underperformed last time out, and is likely to do quite a bit better this time round. Overall control of a few councils isn’t impossible, but – and I agree with Chris here – perhaps more important is whether the party can break new ground east of the Bann.

Minor theme: there are quite a few candidates representing shades of non-SF republicanism, from éirígí to the IRSP to various independents. I don’t expect them to be very successful, but they are worth watching for signs of discontent in the traditional republican base.

Sin é. Phew.

[Electoral stats– indeed, all the electoral stats you could possibly want – chez Nick.]

The very model of a modern monsignor

Allow me to introduce you to Monsignor Jim Curry, parish priest of Our Lady of Victories in Kensington. A most fascinating character. No, that’s not him in the picture.

But first, a digression. Many of you will be aware of the ongoing dispute around the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School in Holland Park. For those of you who aren’t, it may be worth recapping a bit. To begin with, a considerable number of Catholic schools in England – specifically the more successful ones – are lending a sympathetic ear to Michael Gove’s big push for academy status. This is because academy status looks like a good way of escaping the dead hand of the “Catholic Education Service”, a body of bureaucrats whose combined knowledge of education could be inscribed on the back of a postage stamp, but who don’t let that inhibit them from issuing detailed instructions to head teachers on the latest educational fashions. It should be noted that neither the incumbent chairman of CES, Bishop Malcolm McMahon, nor his predecessor, Archbishop Vincent Nichols, have managed to get a firm grip on CES.

Which background is important for understanding the dispute around the Vaughan. Damian has been doing Trojan work on this if you want to delve further, but here’s the story in a nutshell. The Vaughan is one of the best schools in the country outside of the private sector, and in particular is nationally known for music. The main reason for its success is the school’s extremely strong ethos, which is closely tied in to its admissions policy. No, the Vaughan doesn’t select by academic ability or by social class – it runs a points system giving precedence to children whose parents participate regularly in church activities, which to me seems entirely sensible. This, however, has been a long-running sore point with Catholic educational bureaucrats, who regard the Vaughan as hopelessly elitist and, rather than a showcase, a bit of an embarrassment precisely because of its success, and who’d dearly like it to become yet another bog-standard comp.

Which is where the long-running dispute with the Diocese of Westminster comes in. First the Diocese unilaterally changed the Vaughan’s admissions policy, a move hotly contested by the now sadly retired headmaster Michael Gormally. That was round one. In round two, Archbishop Nichols attempted to stamp his authority on matters by sacking a bunch of governors and appointing his placemen, a move that only made him look bad. In round three, the Diocese referred the Vaughan’s admissions policy to the Office of the Schools Adjudicator – in other words, a Catholic diocese narked to the state on one of its own schools for being too good.

All things considered, you can see why Vaughan parents are hopping mad. For more detail, please considering visiting the site of the Cardinal Vaughan Parents’ Action Group, which has justly gained the support of a stellar cast of the Catholic great and good. Which is where we return to where we came in, with this letter [pdf, emphases mine] from the Action Group to Archbishop Nichols:

We write to express our grave concern at the turn of events during last Wednesday night’s meeting of the Cardinal Vaughan Governing Body on 6th April 2011, witnessed by a large number of parents and pupils who had gathered in the School car park at the culmination of the Candlelit Vigil of prayer and hymn singing, held outside the School gates.

At the end of the Vigil, parents and pupils processed into the car park, and were gathered under the window of the library where the meeting was taking place. We have received a number of witness statements which describe what took place, but the salient facts are these:

  • Mr Eynaud, the Acting Headmaster, was seen sitting at the desk in the Head’s office, directly below the library.
  • Parents were singing ‘Faith of Our Fathers’; it was observed that someone closed the library windows, presumably to shut out the sound.
  • Mgr Curry (identified by parishioners of Our Lady of Victories and Our Lady of Grace, although he was not wearing clerical attire) entered the Head’s office and approached Mr Eynaud; clearly very angry, he was gesticulating with his index finger very close to Mr Eynaud, even appearing to prod him in the chest.
  • Mr Stubbings, the Deputy Headmaster, and Mr O’Donnell entered the room; at one point both Mgr Curry and Mr O’Donnell both appeared to be shouting at Mr Eynaud, while Mr Stubbings was trying to interpose himself between them.
  • It appeared that no one in the room was aware of the large number of adults and children who were watching this scene with a sense of mounting shock and dismay. The hymn singing had ceased and a section of the group was demanding the removal of the Director of Education from the Board of Governors; at this, Mr Eynaud emerged into the car park. He asked that the gathering should disperse and appeared pale and very shaken. He spoke to parents and his words implied that he had been given the impression, by Mgr Curry’s words or behaviour, that his career was now ‘finished’.
  • As the group was beginning to disperse, Mgr Curry, followed by Mr O’Donnell, moved towards the door opposite, leading into a corridor. At this, a number of parents began to shout comments such as, ‘Why won’t you come and talk to us?’ They both left the room, leaving Mr Eynaud and Mr Stubbings behind. As the shouting continued, one of the organisers announced that proceedings were at an end and asked everyone to leave. The car park was cleared within two minutes.

We believe that what occurred represents an irretrievable breakdown in the relationship that must exist between a Head and a member of the Governing Body. The Head had no responsibility for the presence of the parent group in the car park; no official notification had been given by the Governing Body that parents were barred from the School grounds (although a request that the Chairman of Governors should meet with parents in the School Hall before the Governors’ meeting had been refused). In any case, there can be no excuse for the bullying and intimidation to which Mr Eynaud was subjected.

Mgr Curry’s continued participation on the appointments panel for the new Head is obviously now out of the question. We believe that his membership of the Governing Body is also now untenable and we request that you replace him as your representative immediately. We also request that Mr Eynaud be given an immediate written apology.

Your Grace, a very large number of Cardinal Vaughan parents have written to you over recent months, asking a great number of questions; none has received a reply from you. On this occasion, we believe that a direct response from you is necessary.

We continue to hold your intentions in our prayers, and would ask you to pray for us as well.

In these circumstances, I would be a little less diplomatic than the redoubtable Mrs Anne Brown is in the forgoing. But eagle-eyed readers will have noticed the reappearance above of Mgr Jim Curry, and his presence requires a bit of explanation.

As you know, I can’t abide personal backbiting, and I really don’t like being nasty to one of our priests, who have enough troubles without me adding to them. But I’m prepared to make an exception for Jim.

For starters, there’s a brief biography here. Some people may wonder how come an East End boy like Jim Curry gets to swank it up at the Athenaeum. My response is that it’s a perfect illustration of that web of patronage known as the Magic Circle. Here we have someone who at a relatively young age got appointed as Cardinal Hume’s personal secretary, carrying on that function for Cormac when +Basil went to meet his Maker, and who since his return to parish work has been remarkably good at getting himself nice parishes. While I’ve rarely heard anyone say a kind work about Jim, there are elements of the hierarchy (naming no names like Cardinal Cormac) who hold him in great esteem.

Not, I hasten to add, nearly as much esteem as Jim holds himself in. You know when you’re leaving Mass and shake hands with the priest on the way out? I often find you can tell a lot about a priest from his body language in that setting. Jim’s body language was always – how shall I put this? – that of a feudal despot having to spend some time meeting and greeting his supplicating peasants. Not the easiest guy to warm up to, no matter how good he is at schmoozing bishops.

Jim is frequently tipped for a mitre himself, most recently with regard to the vacant auxiliary post at Westminster. Certainly, it doesn’t hurt that his old mucker Cormac is a member of the Congregation for Bishops, and thus well placed to pull strings in Rome. The prospect doesn’t really bear thinking about. You see, if the behaviour mentioned above was just an isolated incident from an otherwise steady and responsible priest, that would be one thing, but…

Thinking back, some six or seven years ago, when Jim was parish priest at Our Lady of Grace in Chiswick, he hosted a Churches Together meeting with then international development secretary Hilary Benn. Well, these are the sort of worthy events that take place under the Churches Together banner, and getting an actual government minister to speak might even be considered a feather in Jim’s cap. Were it not for the table just inside the entrance of the church before you got to the pews, groaning with DfID pamphlets and CD-ROMs, of which the large majority were on the topic of “sexual reproductive rights” or, in other words, population control. Such was the volume and placing of the material that it beggars belief that Jim hadn’t seen and okayed it. A priest having a display of population-control literature inside his parish church? Back in the day, that would have meant a stern phone call from the CDF.

Then there was the time he allowed an enormous banner advertising a mobile phone company to be draped from the church railings. This actually made the diary page of the Tablet, which thought the affair hilarious. Perhaps, but perhaps not the decorum you’d expect from a man who’d deeply like to be a bishop.

That’s Chiswick. Since Jim’s move to Kensington, he’s also hit the headlines for replacing the weekly sung Latin Mass with Filipino folk singing, something that wasn’t universally popular even with Filipino parishioners.

Then there was that mysterious affair of the forty grand bet. Back when Cardinal Cormac was retiring as Archbishop of Westminster, there was the usual speculation about his successor. Bishop Arthur Roche of Leeds was widely seen as the frontrunner; in the end, of course, Vin Nichols got the job. In the midst of this, it was reported that Paddy Power had turned down a £40,000 bet on – you guessed it – Jim Curry. There’s no evidence whatsoever that Jim had anything to do with this, but it certainly raised his profile, in a way that cynics might even see as vulgar ostentation.

There was also a case over a decade ago of a controversial school closure in east London. At the time, parents who’d been trying to lobby the diocese reported the Cardinal’s private secretary replying to letters with mafia-style warnings not to bother him with this nonsense again. Hmm, sounds familiar.

And now, Jim finds himself a diocesan appointee to the Vaughan’s governing body in the midst of a bitter dispute between school and diocese, a dispute he seems to be doing his level best to escalate to nuclear level. Presumably Archbishop Nichols couldn’t find someone more emollient and diplomatic, like Colonel Gaddafi or Charlie Sheen. And this maniac is being tipped for a mitre? Sheesh, is all I can say. Sheesh.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 89 other followers