Interlude: Consimilis calefacio

Sorry about the move to moderated comments, which I hope will only be temporary and shouldn’t slow things down too much. It’s a pain in the arse I know, but no more so than my cyber-stalker from the Socialist Party, who is hell-bent on getting me to confess to affiliations I don’t have and “facts” he’s just made up. I suppose I should feel flattered to have attracted the attention of a heresy hunter, but to be honest I’m more irritated.

At any rate, to cushion the blow, we will be resuming our popular series on the revolutionary programme. I should, I realise, explain why we’re taking Éire Nua as the source for this discussion. This is partly for biographical reasons, because I’m familiar with the attempts to marry the programme to revolutionary practice, and partly because, whatever criticisms I may have developed in the interim, I still have some affinity for the old orange pamphlet. (This is why I can’t easily discuss the very interesting programmatic history of the Officials. I agreed with the first page of the Irish Industrial Revolution, but it seemed to go downhill after that.)

In the summer of ’71 I hove down to Leitrim, singing songs nobody knew and stories left undone. To metropolitan Dubs, Leitrim is Ireland’s answer to the seventh circle of hell, but if your roots are in South Derry it holds no terrors. Actually, heading out west was dead useful, as I was just in time to play a small part in the Dáil Chonnacht movement. No only did that mean spending some time with the wonderful Mayo and Conamara republicans, who really are a different breed, but getting a real taste of revolutionary political agitation. Those young people who think revolutionary politics is all about roads and hospitals don’t know they’re born.

Regional differences come into play here. As I’ve explained before, in the 1969/70 split the Officials had almost total domination of Dublin and the east coast, while the Provos were based mostly in the rural South and West. The North was in play for a while, depending on who could get guns to which areas. This tended to reinforce the stereotype that on one side were radical political sophisticates and on the other were conservative Catholic gunmen with no concept of politics beyond what you would hear on a Wolfe Tones LP.

There was of course some truth to this, particularly in the North where many, many Provos were essentially apolitical Defenders, and where the needs of Defenderism reinforced the apolitical trend. Above all, in the North the supremacy of the army was absolute. You could be in Sinn Féin, and lots of people were regardless of the party’s illegality, but the party was basically a front-cum-support network for the army. You had little standing if you weren’t a military man, and political nous was a poor substitute for a reputation as an operator. (As Grizzly himself has reason to know. If you can find anyone who was on an operation with the Dear Leader, I’ll buy you a pint.) In the South things were different, and the stereotype was much less applicable. The party had a life of its own, and you could play a useful role as a political agitator. This is the contradiction at the heart of republicanism, being a popular democratic movement and at the same time a military conspiracy.

Anyway, the programme. Even 50 years after the War of Independence, you could still find a pretty substantial population of irreconcilables who had never given allegiance to the Saorstát, and never would. These weren’t by and large “men of no property”, but men and women of little property, small farmers, schoolteachers and the like. If you had gone to the big Dáil Chonnacht meetings around the province, you would not have noticed an overabundance of rough-and-ready Ballyfermot types, but rather an awful lot of corduroy slacks and tweed sports coats. This was really the republican base outside of the Pale.

And the thing was that we had a programme that was perfectly attuned to the needs of that base. The Sticks called it Poujadism, or green fascism; we called it Comhar na gComharsan and linked it back to Pearse’s Sovereign People and the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil. The nationalisation of natural monopolies, workers’ control of industry, rural cooperatives and radical federalism might have seemed like an eclectic mix, although, with the exception of federalism, practically everything in Éire Nua had been part of the common discourse of the united Sinn Féin in the mid-to-late 1960s (we dumped the tincture of Communist Party Stalinism and kept the rest).

How this programmatic discourse melded with the larger revolutionary project is a subject I’ll be explaining in more detail. This involves quite a bit of thought about political methodology, and about problematic issues in both republican and socialist ideology, not to mention the difficult overlap between the two. I hope readers will get something useful out of this.

Rud eile: In mentioning the Defenderist nature of the Northern Provos, it’s worth bearing in mind that the Northern Sticks were also rather different from their Southern comrades. Anyone who’s been in the WP will bear that out.

Uncle Andy wins the Lotto

So, apart from the main parties giving off that Gordo’s £1bn financial package for the North is much less than they expected, there has been some comment about the £1.2m grant our beautifully groomed proconsul has announced to help the UDA move away from violence, sectarianism and criminality. This £1.2m, payable over three years, has been flagged up by the proconsul as just the down payment, and there is much more to come if the UDA behaves itself.

The £1.2m is little enough, compared to the big whack of public largesse the UDA has been in receipt of for years now, so much so that the Good Friday process has pretty much seen armed loyalism’s grassroots put on the payroll of the peace industry, without much accompanying reduction in the UDA’s nefarious activities. What is interesting is the blatancy of Hain’s move. This money is not being dressed up as “community development”, but openly handed over to the UDA, via its front organisation the UPRG. What we, the punters, are supposed to get from this is also a little opaque. The money will be ploughed into six areas, which may or may not coincide with the UDA’s six brigade areas. And this investment of £1.2m will create a grand total of twelve jobs.

Here’s a thought. Why not forget about auditing procedures, and just hand over suitcases of cash to the UDA Inner Council? Oh, hold on.

And all this is supposed to be part of a series of “confidence-building measures” for the Protestant working class. If the Brits wanted to build confidence in Rathcoole, maybe they would be helping the working-class community there to get the UDA off their backs, instead of subsidising paramilitary rule.

Another thought occurs to me. As no doubt the UPRG will testify, £1.2m is a tidy little sum to get a small political party off the ground. (I would have thought it falls foul of the law on political party funding, not to mention Section 75, but that’s just a lay opinion.) Couldn’t People Before Profit score themselves a grant? It’s obvious that the left have been remiss all these years in not setting up armed wings.

More on this theme on the Socialist Unity Blog.

The Kingstown pimpernel

If you live in Dún Laoghaire, you will in all probability be familiar with this character here. In fact, there isn’t a black-and-white poster goes up in Dún Laoghaire that doesn’t feature Richard Boyd Barrett in some capacity. Richie Boy has of course been a fixture of Irish left politics for quite some time now, longer than you would think from his Peter Pan-like countenance. But I’ve only just discovered his own dedicated website.

And a quite attractively presented website it is too. We, the visiting proletariat, are given a brief biography of Richie Boy and an overview of the divers “Down with this sort of thing” campaigns he heads up. There is the Irish Anti-War Movement, of which our boy is the main spokesman and which is undoubtedly his major claim to fame. There is the People Before Profit Alliance, for which he is the Dún Laoghaire candidate in the upcoming general election. There is the anti-developer campaign Save Our Seafront, which leads me to ponder whether the Kingstown seafront might actually benefit from a little redevelopment.

What you will not find, and eagle-eyed observers of the Irish left will be not at all surprised by this, is an introduction to the Socialist Workers Party. I may be wrong, but I’ve looked over the whole website and can’t say I have seen a single mention of the SWP anywhere. This is despite the fact that Richie Boy has been a member of said organisation for something like 18 years, has spent most of that time on its leading committee as long-suffering sidekick to Swiss Kieran, writes regularly for the Socialist Worker (usually under the rubric of “voices from the movement”, the same device that allows Kevin Wingfield to appear every issue as a spokesman for Ballymun Against Issue of the Week), was a headline speaker at Marxism little more than a week ago and, the last time I spoke to him – which admittedly wasn’t yesterday – was a full-time operative of the SWP.

Before the more excitable Indymedia types start screaming about Cointelpro, I hasten to add that this isn’t some unwarranted exposure. Just about everyone who knows Richard knows he is a high-up member of the SWP. Indeed, he owes his celebrity to the SWP. Richard, you see, is a most pleasant and outgoing chap who makes friends easily. This perfectly complements Swiss Kieran, who is a powerful thinker and impressive speaker, but who is, let’s face it, a little dour and abrasive. This also makes Richard a perfect frontman, a role he has played with aplomb for a good long while now.

The SWP have a somewhat aggravating organisational tic when setting up one of their “united fronts”. The comrades don’t do coalitions; they hold a public meeting and invite people to “join the movement”. They don’t like structures, but on occasion will simulate inclusivity by appointing themselves and two or three non-party figureheads to be a leading committee. Thus it was that, after 9/11, Richard found himself appearing all over the media as spokesman for the fortuitously named “Irish Anti-War Movement”. What the anti-war punters thought about being spoken for by the SWP is an interesting question, but a moot one. Like most of the SWP’s fronts, the IAWM is largely bluff, but a bluff is only a bluff if somebody calls it.

What is striking, for somebody whose whole political CV is based around his leading role in the SWP, is the coyness in mentioning that organisation. Possibly the rationale for this, as with the SWP’s double fronts in the Stormont election, lies deep in the tangled prose of the organisation’s perspectives on a “New Left”, to which I will return anon. But a certain amount of the coyness probably stems from a pragmatic recognition that the SWP name is box-office poison. So, instead of trying to reflect on why that might be so and how the problem could be rectified, we are presented with an elaborate series of fronts, reminiscent of the bad old days when Militant pretended not to exist and held its events under a motley array of cover names. It certainly doesn’t bespeak much confidence in the prospects of “Ireland’s Bolshevik Party”.

Big Ian to hit Tinseltown

On the recurring theme of the GUBU nature of Northern politics, I couldn’t resist this story from the Beeb. It seems the Paisley family has commissioned a biopic of Big Ian, with Gary Mitchell as screenwriter and Ian Óg as executive producer. There is even the unlikely idea that Ballymena’s other famous son, Liam Neeson, might play the lead.

What can you possibly say about this? I’m sure there would be a market for such a picture in Norn Iron, although foreign sales might prove elusive – unless those Southern Baptists who turned out in such numbers for The Passion of the Christ get their act together. And Papa Doc’s eventful life has the makings of a good story – see for example Ed Moloney and Andy Pollak’s Paisley, badly dated now but still indispensable, and Dennis Cooke’s excellent Persecuting Zeal. Neither of these books, however, is much in favour in the Paisley camp, and the hagiography the Dochtúir Mór’s family will be looking for would probably have less drama.

I’m slightly puzzled by Gary Mitchell being asked to write the screenplay. Gary is a good writer, and has produced plenty of stuff sympathetic to loyalism, but I wonder if he’s a good fit for a Paisleyite hagiography. Gary’s writing style is very much Cathy Come Home kitchen sink, and he does have a tendency to do unromantic warts-and-all writing, which is what got him into trouble with the UDA in Rathcoole when they decided to go into dramatic criticism. Maybe the Paisleys misspoke, and they really meant Garry Bushell.

If the thing ever gets off the ground, be assured that your humble scribe will be in the queue ready to do an Ebert on Big Ian’s life story.

By the way, this reminds me – a few years back, when Grizzly was at his peak form of partying with Martin Sheen and Bianca Jagger, there was some speculation floating around that Hollywood might be interested in his life story – or at least that classic work of fiction Before the Dawn, possibly the least revealing memoir ever written. Of late this seems to have fallen off the radar. Memo to the film industry – if there are some gaps in the fantasy market, you could do worse than the life of Ballymurphy’s Nelson Mandela.

Glittering vista of devolution takes shape

So, with the elections out of the way, attention now turns to the formation of an Executive. This is due to happen next Monday, and Big Ian is currently involved in a game of chicken with our beautifully groomed proconsul as to whether the 26 March deadline will be met. Paisley says the date isn’t set in stone. Hain says it is, and what’s more the date is enshrined in law.

Actually it matters very little either way. Hain knows that the law can be changed in ten minutes via an Order in Council, and Big Ian will want to push the process past 26 March just to prove that he’s calling the shots. But there likely will be an Executive set up at some point – whether it lasts is another matter.

What, then, will be the shape of the Executive? I’m not talking about personnel here, but about what, if anything, it will do. Some clues are hidden in what the Brits gave the DUP at St Andrew’s, in a significant rewriting of the Good Friday Agreement. Under the GFA, for instance, both “communities” in the Assembly had to vote for the slate of First and Deputy First Minister. That has now changed, so the DUP won’t have to vote for Martin McGuinness. In other words, they won’t have to vote confidence in the very government they will be leading. And this is before you take into account Robbo’s pledge to have a battle a day in the Executive – presumably, if nationalist ministers don’t oblige, the DUP will invent a battle.

The other significant concession at St Andrew’s was that the actions of ministers would be subject to the approval of the Assembly, as opposed to the virtual autonomy ministers had under the GFA. Taken together with the provision for weighted voting, this means the DUP – with 36 of the 108 seats, but the majority of unionist MLAs – can not only veto legislation, but also non-legislative actions of ministers. It doesn’t take a genius to foresee that the DUP would vote against any proposal of a Provo minister, even one they agree with, just out of badness. In other words, we will have the content if not the form of majority rule.

This leads on to the question of what the Executive will do. The proconsul has been holding before the punters a glittering vista of a devolved administration abolishing water charges, putting a hold on the rates revaluation and doing all sorts of wonderful things with the big financial package Gordo is offering us. On closer scrutiny, the water charge and rates revaluation would only be mitigated, not stopped altogether, and on Gordo’s past form, it’s a fair bet that much of the money he announces will be money he’s already announced.

There are incentives, though, for the DUP to get into an Executive, which have less to do with what devolution might achieve and more to do with what it might prevent. First on their list is the Acht Gaeilge. It doesn’t matter that the Brits have already significantly watered down the proposed Language Act – even a symbolic official recognition of Irish is enough to enrage the Prodocracy. But, if devolution is restored, the Acht Gaeilge goes to the Assembly, where the DUP will veto it.

Likewise post-primary selection. Readers will recall that when Martin McGuinness was education minister, just as he was being dragged out the door he signed a directive abolishing the 11+. Ever since, direct rule ministers have faffed about the issue, failing to put into place an alternative system. Now, this school year just going will be the last to have the 11+, so what will a devolved Assembly do? Sammy the Streaker has laid it out starkly – unless the two nationalist parties knuckle under and reverse their opposition to selection, the Assembly will block any proposed non-selective system, thus throwing the secondary sector into chaos and allowing individual grammar schools to set their own selection criteria. This will actually be much worse than the 11+, which is at least a structured system.

So we must ask, what are nationalist ministers, in particular the Provos, going to do in this situation? As I see it, they have two options. One is to join the Executive on the DUP’s terms – at least until Big Ian figures out a way to kick them out – while bumming and blowing about how, by doing so, they are calling the DUP’s bluff. This is what one might term the Andytown News approach. The other option – which could be combined with the first – is to lobby the Brits to impose progressive measures over the head of the devolved administration, because they sure as hell won’t get any through Stormont.

Either way, the argument that a restoration of Stormont will solve all our problems looks thinner by the day.

The Old Firm election, part 3

Whereat we cast a beady eye on the dissident republicans and go under the SEA with Captain Eamo

In this final post on the Stormont election results, I want to take a look at the two forces aspiring to offer an alternative – the republicans and the left – and assess the likelihood of them being able to do so. I should state in advance that my conclusions will not be terribly optimistic. But to begin with, I should point out that there are two constituencies, which are distinct even though they overlap to some extent. This is the traditional republican constituency, which is mostly rural though with some urban support, and what might be termed a left republican, republican socialist or Connollyite constituency, which is almost exclusively urban. The election results partially illuminate these audiences.

The actual votes for dissidence are not all that much out of line with what I was expecting. They might have surprised outside observers relying on press reports (and, despite the effective media blackout on RSF, there was a remarkable boosting of mad Catholic reactionary Gerry McGeough by journalists who you wouldn’t expect to be sympathetic). Indeed, although disgruntlement with the Provos will be obvious to anyone even slightly acquainted with the republican base, there are good reasons why the dissidents were never going to do very well. Firstly, the Provo cadre – and this is where disillusionment is keenest – was never held together by ideology, but by military discipline. This explains why demoralisation and abstention are a more common reaction than dissidence. Bear in mind too that, as far as the majority of Northern Catholics are concerned, the details of the peace process are of little interest. What is important is that the war is over and, thanks to Gordon Brown’s voodoo economics, there is more or less full employment. Combined with the Provos’ massive apparatus, this gives some context for PSF’s continuing popularity and the lack of a large audience for critiques of the GFA process.

Then you have to consider the subjective factor. The dissidents had no organisation, no resources, no really attractive or well-known candidates and no record of doing the work on the ground that pays such dividends for the Provos. (Davy Hyland, who is personally very popular in Newry and whose appetite for hard work is legendary, is the exception here.) Lots of potential supporters weren’t on the register, having taken themselves off to avoid being impersonated. There was also the question of what political alternative the dissidents were putting forward. RSF stand for traditional republicanism, and traditional republicanism wasn’t all that brilliant that we would want to rerun the tape. Gerry McGeough stands for traditional republicanism, plus fascism and the Virgin Mary. As for Hyland, Paul McGlinchey and Martin Cunningham, it’s not terribly clear what they stand for. So you had candidacies that could only really appeal to people who were already fairly hardline republicans, and even among hardline republicans RSF, in particular, are far from being universally popular.

So the results for independent republicanism then become explicable. RSF’s six candidates polled a remarkably uniform 400 or so, as did McGlinchey in North Antrim and Cunningham in South Down; 800 deluded souls in Fermanagh voted for Catholic Reaction; Hyland got a little over 2000 in Newry/Armagh and Peggy O’Hara a little under 2000 in Derry. Mrs O’Hara’s campaign had some peculiar features that I’ll come back to presently. I hasten to point out that I’m not making excuses for poor results, simply setting them in context. So, taken together with the Hearts and Minds poll last November, we might say that the dissident vote this time out represents a baseline rather than a maximum, but it does shine a light on the sort of audience that is out there. And we can have some kind of feel for the audience that might be available to a more attractive project than actually existing dissidence.

The Hyland vote is easily explicable in parish pump terms. The vote for Mrs O’Hara, who is not to my knowledge in the IRSP but is certainly identified with them, is interesting in that it was the nearest thing we had to a left republican campaign (although trad republicans in Derry also supported her) and because of what it says about political developments up there. Basically, there is a relatively big audience for dissidence in Derry because Derry has had nationalist government for decades and had a peace process ten years before the rest of us. Things have been maturing slightly quicker there. That’s why so many of the names on the Letter of 500 came from Derry. But the sentiment of opposition is also quite confused. We could see that in the policing debate, where the dissidents organised a big rally in Derry, and then invited Eamonn McCann and Tony McIntyre to do the speaking. Predictably, neither of these balloons had much to say, though, predictably, that didn’t stop them talking at length. The hope would have to be that some people in Derry do some thinking and draw some conclusions.

I have a faint hope that some opposition might arise from disgruntled republicans. I have no such hope in the far left, but it’s worth glancing at their performances anyway. It’s disappointing to note that the Workers Party seem to have slowed their inexorable decline. To be honest, the Sticks don’t serve any socialist purpose any more and their disappearance would at least clear away some undergrowth.

From the Sticks we turn to the most morose people in Irish politics, the Socialist Party of Northern Ireland (Kautskyism-Taaffeism-Peter Hadden Thought). They will be slightly cheered up by their vote having finally broken through the 200 mark, with Jim Barbour in South Belfast going up from 167 to 248 and Tommy Black in East Belfast rising from 176 to 225. These gains of 81 and 49 respectively are a clear vindication of SP strategy – not! This is despite flogging water charges into the ground over the past three or four years, with Peter Hadden having recently declared that the proletariat were being electrified by the We Won’t Pay Campaign (a mass movement of the SP in coalition with itself). Yet again bread and butter fail to deliver the goods. It’s true that water charges were much discussed during the election, but most of the punters seem to believe that Big Ian will abolish them.

Joking aside, the main problem with the SP’s perspective is their weird belief that you can build a base for socialism in places like the Beersbridge Road, if only you disavow anti-imperialism and strip out from your programme anything that might scare the Prods. The SP have been doing this for decades – so much so that their last manifesto only had one item on it. And they still can’t get votes in these areas! It would be interesting to see which boxes the tiny SP vote actually did come from – I suspect much of it actually comes from the Markets and Short Strand, and is an offshoot of the once substantial WP vote in those areas. The thing is that, for well over 30 years, the only places in the North where socialism could find any audience have been working-class Catholic areas, where there has been some radical and anti-imperialist consciousness. That means West Belfast and Derry, to a lesser extent North Belfast and Newry, and some small pockets elsewhere. In other words, the left republican constituency mentioned above. The SP’s schematic dogmatism doesn’t allow them to consider this; the SWP are dimly aware of it on some pragmatic level, although it contradicts their formal politics.

The SWP, as anyone who attended their Marxism event at the weekend will testify, are cock-a-hoop at the votes for Captain Eamo in Derry and the wee lad in West Belfast, running under their two different fronts. How their treasurer feels about having shelled out something like five grand for less than 3000 votes is undisclosed, but on the evidence of Marxism it would seem that Yo politics are alive and well. Actually, although Eamo’s vote has held up remarkably well – Mrs O’Hara’s intervention only slightly dented it – I am more and more convinced that this is an essentially personal vote and not evidence that 2000 people in Derry believe the Soviet Union was state capitalist. Rather, I suspect much of it comes from luvvie elements, of whom there are many in Derry. After all, if fellow journo Brian Rowan can score 1200 first preferences in North Down on a platform of anti-politics, it surely isn’t surprising that TV celebrity McCann, one of the best-known faces in the North, could get 2000 votes for a platform of right-on clichés.

Somewhat more to the point is the vote for the wee lad, who scored nearly 800 in West Belfast. This clearly wasn’t a personal vote, as nobody had ever heard of the candidate. (The Provos had a number of candidates I’ve never heard of, but then they have a machine.) It wasn’t a vote for SWP politics, as it wasn’t an SWP campaign. It surely to God wasn’t a popular endorsement of young Seán’s Ali G manifesto. The only explanation I can put forward is that he managed to get some votes from the left republican constituency, on the grounds that he looked a bit lefty and a bit anti-imperialist (only in Iraq, true, but in West Belfast that would be taken as a dig at the Brits). These are the same sort of people who would vote for an IRSP or Socialist Democracy candidate – indeed, the Irps or SD might have done better, as they would have run an explicitly anti-Stormont campaign.

I can’t see the SWP getting anything out of this in the long term. The Irps or SD, having acquired this audience, would go out and try to organise an opposition. The SWP can’t, not only because they don’t have the organisation, but, more importantly, because they don’t have the politics. What could they do with these people – sell them tickets to Marxism? The only consolation for the SWP is that they don’t think in the long term anyway. A short morale boost will suit them fine.

The republican opposition, for all their enormous faults, are at least serious people, while the left as usual give the impression of being totally unserious about anything except short-term sectarian advantage. Even so, for the critic of the Grizzlyite peace strategy, there is little here to take comfort from. The most that can be said is, perhaps the ferment in Derry will throw up something worthwhile.

The Old Firm election, part 2

Provos make out like bandits as SDLP continues its slow death

Moving on to the nationalist side of the fence, there is no question but that this election has been a triumph for the Provos. If the DUP election machine is impressively slick, the PSF machine is space-age. Incredible vote management delivering five out of six in West Belfast; all three Mid-Ulster candidates returned on the first count; Paul “Butch” Butler winning an unlikely seat in Lagan Valley on the back of an enormous turnout from Lagmore. The deployment of the Provos’ small army of election workers in the latter stages – notably an invasion of South Belfast by Shinners from the West – was wondrous to behold. Even their own activists were stunned by some of the results, such as Mitchel the Draft Dodger topping the poll in South Antrim, young Dáithí McKay only a whisker behind Papa Doc in North Antrim, and coming close to a second seat in Upper Bann.

By contrast, the results make grim reading for the South Down and Londonderry Party. The Stoops are now below a quota in Fermanagh/South Tyrone, East Derry, North Antrim, South Antrim, North and West Belfast and Upper Bann. In some constituencies – notably West Tyrone and South Antrim – they have been wracked by internecine warfare that lost them their seat in the former and nearly did so in the latter. In their former fiefdom of South Down the Provos are sitting on their shoulders like vultures. Only in Foyle and South Belfast do they retain anything like a credible claim to be the leading nationalist party.

The SDLP is not quite ready to expire yet. Despite the fact that there is little more to the party than meets the eye – its lack of organisation has been cruelly shown up yet again – there remains a certain sociological base that can keep the party going for years to come. But the prognosis is grim. Anyone familiar with the SDLP will know that for decades it gained support by being a) the leading Catholic party, b) the party favoured by the bishops, and c) the non-violent party. Only b) really applies any more, and to an increasingly limited extent as the Provos have got more respectable. Meanwhile, the party on the ground consists as always of little fiefs – some doctor, solicitor or head teacher who did something in the civil rights movement, has lived off that reputation ever since, and can get elected to the council in his own right but won’t organise a branch for fear of building up a successor. The party may end up literally dying out in some areas before long.

And that’s without mentioning the lunatic electoral strategy of the Attwood brothers, whose approach is to brag about the SDLP’s success in civilising the barbarians, and then expects those same barbarians to vote SDLP. It is more likely that affronted barbarians would vote Provo just to spite them.

So the Provos have consolidated their leadership of nationalism. But hidden beneath the overall advance of some 2% in the PSF vote, there are some interesting dynamics going on. One is that there is some erosion of PSF support in the party’s traditional working-class base. Some of these people are going over to dissidence, but much larger numbers to abstention. (Actually, my hunch is that those who voted dissident last week were more likely abstainers than direct Provo defectors.) But these losses are more than made up for by to human waves of new voters – firstly, former SDLP supporters, and secondly young voters who have no memory of pre-peace process politics and who vote, when they do vote, monolithically for the Provos.

This sets up a political circle which may be vicious or virtuous depending on your point of view. The Provos will find it exceedingly hard to win back traditional supporters who have lost confidence in them. A return to strident republican politics, even if the leadership wanted it, would tend to alienate the typical Sinn Féin Nua supporter who wants a more aggressive version of the SDLP. Furthermore, the Provos’ shift on policing has ramifications that go beyond the ideological republican’s opposition to a colonial police force or to Belfast Defenderism. One of the main ways the Provos used to reassure a restive base was to go on a spree of punishment beatings, maybe nutting a couple of drug dealers for good measure. They can’t do that any more.

Therefore the Provo strategy – and this makes perfect electoral sense – is to decommission the SDLP post haste. This is desperately bad news for an SDLP that doesn’t know what its function is supposed to be any more. But, as the Provos transform inexorably into a slightly constitutional party – not a million miles from being a less elderly and jaded SDLP – there is an obvious question. The tensions within Northern nationalism are such that a single, monolithic nationalist party is no more possible than a single, monolithic unionist party. If PSF are becoming the new SDLP, where will the new Sinn Féin arise from? That’s of course assuming we would even want a new Sinn Féin, an outcome that I personally would be less than thrilled with. However, there is a smallish but potentially significant space opening up in the old Provo base, and it will be fascinating to watch how different tendencies try to build out of it.

The Old Firm election, part 1

Big Ian triumphant as the OUP crumbles in a pincer movement and the Cream Bun is toast

Hold onto your hats, because we’re going to be covering the North’s federal election in three parts. First, we’ll look at the unionist result; second, at the nationalist/republican result; finally, we’ll number-crunch the republican and left votes to get some sense of where an opposition might come from.

Why do I call this the Old Firm election? Well, if you’re a kid in Glasgow, you’re hardly going to support Partick Thistle, are you? Likewise, it had already been determined in advance that there were only two main parties, and since the preferred outcome was a DUP-PSF coalition – the idiot savant in Downing Street having divined that this was the best chance of stability – there was a mighty incentive to the electorate to confirm recent trends and put those two parties in the driving seat. Which they duly did.

In broad terms, the DUP beat the OUP by better than two to one in votes (30.1% to 14.9%) and exactly two to one in seats (36 to 18). Take your eyes off the 27.5% swing in Jeffrey Boy’s Lagan Valley fiefdom – rather look at plummeting OUP votes in East Derry, South Antrim, Strangford and East Antrim among many sometime party strongholds. OUP candidates who used to breeze in on the first count, notably Sir Reg himself, were left waiting on transfers. It seems too, vide the Alliance revival exemplified by Naomi Long’s barnstorming performance in East Belfast, that the OUP is caught in a pincer movement. Not only has its right wing decamped en masse to Papa Doc, but the moderates (natural Alliance supporters in other words) who had previously lent their votes to the OUP on the grounds that it was pro-agreement, have been less than impressed by Empey’s strategy of trying to out-Paisley Paisley.

The OUP will survive in the medium term, as a home for those who don’t like the DUP’s bible-bashing and find Alliance just a bit too Awfully Awfully, and also because it retains a few people like Danny Kennedy who have a profile as decent public representatives. But having lost its raison d’être as the leading unionist party, it’s difficult to see a way out.

The dissident unionists likewise found out that you can’t out-Paisley Paisley. Bob “Cream Bun” McCartney, whose egocentric bid to win six seats had provided rare entertainment, ended up losing out in North Down to veteran councillor Brian Wilson, an Alliance man manqué who fell out with his party years ago, kept on being elected as an independent, and now represents the Greens. Paul “Sports Massage” Berry only held a quarter of his vote and is now bowing out of politics; amiable Strangford DUP MLA George Ennis, who had defected to the Bobite heresy, not only lost his seat but suffered the humiliation of polling less than the Provos in a constituency which is something of a unionist Heart of Darkness. No, the only potential opposition the Big Man has to worry about is that in his own party.

So unionism has effectively united behind Big Ian, but without losing its contradictions. It isn’t entirely accurate to say that the Donaldsonites have gone from being the right wing of the OUP to the left wing of the DUP, but nor is it totally inaccurate. People like Arlene Foster, Jimmy Spratt, Peter Weir and Jeffrey Boy himself would be unimaginable in the DUP of ten years ago. However, the party cadre – more so than its voting base – retains many people of the Singing Willie variety who will slap the Lundy name on Big Ian as soon as he oversteps the line. The major division is between those Duppies who don’t want to share power at all on theological grounds, and those who will try and hold out for some kind of modified majority rule.

This could be seen in Paisley’s own reaction to the result, once you stripped away the biblical efflorescence. “I want two things,” arsa an Dochtúir Mór. “I want a big massive financial package from Gordo, and I want an ejector seat so I can kick the Shinners out of the Executive whenever I damn well feel like it.” The ejector seat is necessary to placate the base, even if the Big Man is willing to deal. The trouble is that the baseline Catholic demand in the North is for equality, and even those unionists willing to share power don’t want to do it on the basis of equality. Polling evidence tends to show that the DUP is pretty representative of Protestant opinion on this issue. The question is, how far will the Provos bend to meet them?

Rud eile: One notable thing about the Alliance performance was the election of Anna Lo in South Belfast, providing some much-needed representation for the beleaguered Chinese community. Anna thus becomes the first ethnic minority person ever to be elected in the North, and the first Chinese person to be elected to a parliamentary assembly in these islands. That aside, it was dead smart of Alliance to build on South Belfast’s existing liberal vote by appealing to the large Chinese population in the area. If Gerry McGeough had been cuter, maybe he could have linked up with the League of Polish Families.

Polling day reflections

Just a few haphazard thoughts on the election, and on last weekend’s PSF Ard Fheis. Firstly, and I’ll get onto the southern situation in due course, was the Ard Fheis pledge on coalition – which may or may not be academic according to the Leinster House arithmetic. There are of course a lot of yahoos running around the Irish left screaming “No Coalition” as if these magic words will cover up a dearth of ideas, but Grizzly faces a bit of a problem here. The PSF leadership would dearly love to be in government in both states, but much of the southern cadre suffers an allergic reaction to the very concept of coalition with Fianna Fáil. Thusly the Ard Fheis pronounced itself against the idea of coalition with… the Desocrats! As if!

I am also slightly bemused by the euro. Not the currency per se, but if I recall correctly the Provos opposed the Free State’s adoption of the euro, on the quite sensible grounds that the Maastricht convergence criteria would rule out radical economic policies. Yet now we hear the call for an all-Ireland currency, as if the punt still existed. Is this a radical policy of the same ilk as the call for an all-Ireland 12% corporation tax, or an all-Ireland police force – made radical by placing the formula “all-Ireland” before it?

Now, the Stormont election. The counts on tomorrow and Friday will give us some idea of how things will pan out, so I won’t even hazard a prediction. But I do want to have a brief look at the two groups posing as an alternative, the republicans and the left.

The letter from 500 ex-prisoners that appeared in yesterday’s Irish News calling for a vote for independent republican candidates had a couple of interesting features. I noticed that the largest lot of signatories came from Derry, with significant numbers from Armagh and Tyrone but not many from Belfast. Besides, most of the Belfast people I recognised on the list were not Provos but Irps, who you wouldn’t expect to be onside anyway. Another weakness was that the unity of the letter was achieved purely on the basis of opposing the RUC/PSNI, with no signs of a positive alternative. Nonetheless, and although the instigators seem to have been the usual suspects, I draw some comfort from the scale, showing that there are a relatively significant number of republicans who believe we need a republican movement and that the Provos aren’t it. Given the almost total lack of support for a return to armed struggle, there is obviously some kind of an audience for political alternatives.

But, as it happens, I didn’t vote republican and didn’t argue with anybody else to do so. The republican candidates, of course, fall into three categories. There is Gerry McGeough, whose brand of Maria Duce politics is a bit rich for my taste. There are folks like Davy Hyland and Paul McGlinchey, who have only been out of the Provos five minutes and, whatever lines in the sand they may have drawn over policing, haven’t yet shown much sign of being a real opposition. Then you have RSF, who actually are an opposition and have a positive programme of their own. The trouble with RSF is that, despite being good principled republicans, they are also rigid doctrinaires (though Ruairí is much more flexible than he’s given credit for) and a tactical sensibility that I would describe as erratic and a less charitable soul as bonkers.

Nonetheless, although I don’t expect the republican opposition to get many votes, it might not be a bad thing if they did. If they started to look like a credible opposition, then there would be some pressure on them to behave like one.

This does not apply to the far left. I have little confidence in the ability of the left to recognise the real world, never mind reflect and draw serious conclusions. Any votes for these bozos will only encourage them. It is likely, for instance, that the Socialist Party’s campaigning around water charges will bring them some extra votes (their tiny vote base couldn’t possibly shrink further). So, if Tommy Black can raise his vote from 130 to something like 300, which is entirely possible, although that doesn’t amount to a hill of beans the SP will claim it as a vindication of their politics and a sign that things are moving in their direction. And the least said about the SWP’s Ali G politics, the better.

The DUP goes cross-community

In reviewing the West Belfast election addresses, I left out Diane Dodds of the DUP, on the grounds that I hadn’t seen hers. This is a stroke of good luck, because in fact Diane has had two addresses out. The one, for the Shankill Road whence nearly all of her first preferences come, is the usual stentorian Paisleyism. But Diane has also issued a separate and different address geared towards the nationalist areas that make up the bulk of the West Belfast constituency.

This makes some sense. Remember that last time out, Diane only won her seat with a margin of 97 votes over PSF’s Sue Ramsey. Therefore a few lower preferences, adding up to fractions of votes in the later stages of the PR count, could make all the difference.

So, how is Diane appealing to her Catholic constituents? By pitching herself as the family values candidate. Notably, she makes a big deal of being the only West Belfast MLA to vote against gay equality. This is the DUP’s idea of cross-community politics – appealing to the Gerry McGeough vote. At least it shows that Big Ian’s lot have no problem in principle with reactionary Catholic ultras.

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