What’s been going on at Stormont this last wee while? Well, newly elected House of Commons Speaker John Bercow was just in town, meeting Assembly Speaker Willie Hay (DUP, Foyle) and apparently picking up some tips on refereeing civilised debates. Given the standard of debate at Stormont, the uncharitable may say this is a bit like getting driving lessons from Stevie Wonder, but Willie is a pleasant enough chap and it never hurts to be a bit sociable. Let’s chalk this down to some devolved diplomacy on Bercow’s part.
On a less elevated note, there’s been some rather unimpressive agitprop from the DUP on the Hill. We’ve seen the party hinting again at an “Ulster jobs for Ulster workers” position – which, given the illegality of such, is just pure kite-flying – but this sort of thing didn’t really make much impact in yesterday’s migrant workers debate. That debate, incidentally, saw friend of this blog Jim Shannon (DUP, Strangford) make the following pithy intervention:
Tha raisin fer this wus that fer tha real cumin tha tither o’ migrant woarkers intae oor cummunitees, ther haes tae be tiem aside fer takkin things iver tae heft tae git aa’ troo unnerstaunin. Aa’ wus at tha lanch o’ tha Oardinary Leevs exhibitshun at Stormoont fer migrant woarkers, whuch showed tha impoartin an vital roul they play in oor modrin society.
Aa’ hae aften visited Poalish groups an ither migrant woarkers leevin in tha Airdes area, whau left Englan an whau noo wroucht in Huddleston Engineerin’ an in tha fish factories an they aw play an impoartin pert in oor woarkforce.
And I am certain that the Polish and Lithuanian workers in Jim’s constituency are glad to have his understanding.
From the heights of Ulster Scots rhetoric, let us descend to the level of low slapstick, in the forms of DUP young Turks Alex Easton (North Down) and Jonathan Craig (Lagan Valley), who had tabled a motion with the inspiring title “Protestant Student Exodus”, which read as follows:
Proposed: That this Assembly calls on the Minister for Employment and Learning to bring forward measures to attract, and ensure that, students from a Protestant background are encouraged to opt for universities in Northern Ireland as their first choice, rather than universities in the rest of the United Kingdom.
To propose student selection by religious quota is, of course, totally illegal and wouldn’t survive thirty seconds of a Section 75 audit. But the real business of this was that, having secured 90 minutes of Assembly debating time, our dynamic duo were proposing to bellyache at length about how Queens and the NUU are bastions of republicanism, where no Protestant student dares to tread.
It’s balderdash, of course. Back in the days when Peter Weir and Simon Hamilton, to name but two, were students at Queens you couldn’t bloody dig them out of the Students Union. They were there every day, hatching their plots in smokeless rooms over glasses of orange juice. Cold house, forsooth. The mythology dies hard, though, as we heard when Alex Easton made an appearance on Talk Back. Unfortunately for Alex, Wendy played a dirty trick on him and brought in an academic who had studied this question and knew the facts and figures. He reckoned that Protestant students were slightly more likely than Catholic students to head to Britain because a) we were talking mostly about the Protestant middle class, who are more likely to be able to afford it, b) to improve their prospects in the job market and c) to get out of Norn Iron for a few years. In all the studies that were done, sectarianism didn’t show up as a serious determinant.
And if you thought that made Alex sound a bit of a doughhead, he had an even tougher time in the Assembly:
Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer will have 10 minutes to propose the motion and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members will have five minutes.
Rev Dr Robert Coulter: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The Members in whose names the motion is tabled are not present. What is your ruling?
Mr Speaker: Members who table motions have a responsibility to be in the House to move them. I will move on to the next item of business.
Mr Easton, I take it that you have an explanation for the House as to why you were not in your place to move the motion.
Mr Easton: I apologise to the House, but I was in the middle of a radio interview that went on longer than I had anticipated.
Mr Speaker: I hear what the Member says, but I must tell him and the whole House that his first responsibility is to the House. I intend to move on to the next item of business.
I warned the whole House quite a while ago that, if Ministers or Members are not in their place to move the business of the House or private Members’ business, that business will fall; and this morning the motion fell. It is no fault of the House that that has happened. However, Members need to know their responsibility to the House and to the business of the House.
Now that is a slick bit of chairing from Willie Hay – I doubt that John Bercow himself could have done better. Alex looked far from gruntled about the situation – there was no word of where the seconder, Jonathan Craig, had got to, but I believe the traffic in Lisburn was hectic.
There’s also more news from the wacky world of the Ulster Conservative and Unionist New Force, and this has to do with candidate selection for the next Westminster election. The process here is that each constituency association of both of UCUNF’s affiliated parties will pick a candidate, and then the two parties will negotiate over who gets which constituency. But the South Belfast Unionist Assocation has thrown a monkey wrench in the works by sending a letter to Sir Reggie urging him to agree a unionist unity candidate with the DUP. The Beeb’s Mark Devenport writes:
On a separate matter, the move by South Belfast Ulster Unionists to propose a unionist unity candidate in the constituency has the potential to unravel the UUP’s understanding with the Conservatives. The DUP warmly welcomed the initiative but I suspect the UUP leadership will knock the association back.
Apropos of which, Chekov is less than impressed:
It still hasn’t dawned on some members of the Ulster Unionist party, has it? The Rubicon has been crossed, bridges have been burned. Whichever cliché you wish to employ, its underlying truth is the same – the only viable future which the UUP can contemplate is with its new Conservative partners.
A nonnegotiable principle of the Conservative / UUP pact is that it must be rolled out across every constituency in Northern Ireland.
The purpose of UCUNF is not to add to an alphabet soup of interchangeable unionist sects. It is designed to offer genuine participation in UK politics to ALL the people in Northern Ireland. It cannot operate only where there is a resounding ‘prod’ majority…
But rather than getting on with picking a young, enthusiastic contender, in order to join Conservative selection Peter McCann in front of the joint committee, the South Belfast association would rather cede the seat to Jimmy Spratt or a similar DUPe Neanderthal, if the report is to be believed!
Chekov is of course correct that the whole idea of unionist unity candidates is incompatible with the logic behind the Forza Nuova – whether Sir Reggie will allow himself to be bound by logic is another matter. The ongoing situation in North Down with Lady Sylvia has never been resolved, and Reggie is likely to come under some pressure as regards Fermanagh – though Fermanagh UUs have no great love for the turncoat Arlene Foster, which might help him slightly.
Anyway, I don’t know about young and enthusiastic candidates. One of the selling points of UCUNF was supposed to be that the Tory lash-up would enable a slate of fresh faces to be put forward – some young people, a woman or two, perhaps even a Catholic. This would, as an added bonus, be a mechanism for excluding dinosaurs like David McNarry. But it will be interesting to see who emerges in South Belfast. In the absence of Gimpo, who would have to give up his ministry and Stormont berth, the obvious contender is Bram Stoker, who may well have the rare ability to hoover up some votes in Sandy Row and Donegall Pass, but is not exactly the sort of person you’d be comfortable introducing to Dave Cameron. Basil McCrea might be just about passable, but one expects the Tories would look askance at a McNarry or a Stoker or a Fred Cobain turning up on their benches. Short of raising Big Frankie Millar from the dead, it’s hard to imagine who would be a less comfortable fit with the metrosexual New Tories.
If it’s any comfort, the DUP too is a little jittery about parliamentary selection. Theoretically, the party is supposed to be getting rid of double jobbing, but the existing Westminster team look like having another run-out. Notable is North Antrim, where the octogenarian Dochtúir Mór plans to stick around. This is a transparent response to the Traditional Unionist threat – Sunny Jim might have fancied taking on Ian Óg, but the big man looks like an opponent too far. There are also rumblings from East Belfast, where Robbo had signalled his intention to stand down, with the appointment of local MLA Robin Newton as junior minister being an obvious gambit to raise the profile of his successor. Yet Robin Newton is sort of the David McNarry of the DUP – he’s been around a very long time while making very little impact, while being well enough thought of in some quarters that he’s always on the ticket. Not even Robin would claim he’s likely to set the world alight, and a three-cornered fight between him, Reggie and Naomi Long, with the TUV as the joker in the pack, would have been fascinating. But if Robbo runs again he’ll win, and East Belfast will be as dull as ever.
Finally, what of the TUV? They don’t look like much as a party, but the existential question they pose to the DUP is a real one. Big Ian’s strategy, for almost all of his political career, was above all else to make sure that nobody could call him a lundy. Now, for a huge chunk of the traditional DUP base, the DUP is the Lundy Party. That’s why Robbo is so jittery in the face of a seemingly ramshackle enemy – just remember how the youthful Ian Paisley and William Beattie, with nothing but their bibles and their rhetoric, wreaked havoc on the Unionist Party in the 1960s.
The question will be one of what the TUV decides to do. At this point, Sunny Jim has signalled that he’ll only stand Westminster candidates in safe unionist seats – his focus is on the next Stormont election. But the Euro-result raises an interesting question. Diane Dodds did the whole tubthumping act of how the enemies of Ulster couldn’t be allowed to top the poll, but the voters didn’t listen. Why? Maybe, given our federal political system, lots of Prods are now so inured to having the enemies of Ulster in government that Diane’s pitch didn’t scare them as it might have done ten years ago. Alternatively, and this isn’t at all inconsistent with the foregoing, your Traditional Unionist voters just hate the DUP so much that they don’t give a stuff about the Provos getting in. If that’s the case, why not stand in South Belfast or Fermanagh? If you’re a real hardline unionist, why should you care about the electoral prospects of Jimmy Spratt or Arlene Foster? If UCUNF can offer the voters of those areas the chance to support pan-UK unionism, shouldn’t the TUV offer them the chance to punish the lundies at the ballot box? I merely make the suggestion.