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.]

Norn Iron ecologists find thriving population of Jocko Homo

The hardy perennials are always good of course, and it’s been pleasing to see the resurfacing of a story covered here way back in 2007. Yep, those creationist boys are at it again, and once again the controversy centres around the north’s sole World Heritage Site, the famous Giant’s Causeway. Even those of you who have never been to the Giant’s Causeway will instantly recognise those hexagonal basalt columns from the cover of Led Zep’s classic album Houses of the Holy. Quite the landmark, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Now, there are two theories in currency about the origins of the Causeway. Most if not all geologists reckon it was formed around sixty million years ago as a result of volcanic activity. On the other hand, many DUP members reckon it was formed around four thousand years ago as a result of Noah’s Flood. The two theories are obviously incompatible.

This ties in with the recent controversy over the intervention of the Stormont culture minister Nelson McCausland (DUP, North Belfast) in the content of museums here. Nelson, you’ll recall, was keen to see museums give more prominence to the Orange Order, Ulster Scots and “alternative theories of the origins of the universe”. Of course, Nelson’s love of alternative history – he’s not only a young-earth creationist but also a British Israelite – is remarkably strong even for a DUP man. One might have assumed that this was just Nelson going on one of his occasional solo runs. But, as Pete points out in an excellent bit of detective work, there seems to be more to it than that.

In the first instance, we have a little-known fundie outfit called the Caleb Foundation, which appears to have a particular bee in its bonnet about displays of fossils and such, not to mention that rather impressive coelacanth, in the Ulster Museum. The CF is claiming credit for its lobbying having set Nelson on the path of righteousness:

When the Caleb Foundation met with the Minister we discussed concerns that we had regarding the imbalance that is all too evident at the Ulster Museum. Imbalance and philosophical prejudice is on public display at the Museum.

The fact is that when we consider the origin of the universe and the origin and development of life on earth, science is not settled. There is data. There are artefacts. There are scientific laws. There is a majority scientific opinion that explains these things in terms of an ancient universe and gradual step by step evolution from primitive and simpler life to more complex and advanced life.

But there is also a minority scientific opinion – to be found in working scientists, college science lecturers etc who come to different conclusions, pointing instead to a much younger earth.

And it gets even better. You see, the CF is claiming that young-earth creationism should be protected under the equality provisions of the Good Friday Agreement:

If Northern Ireland is to move towards a shared future on a genuine basis of equality and inclusivity, then it is only right that a publicly funded institution such as the Ulster Museum is fully and sensitively reflective of the various views of society as a whole – including those of evangelical Christians.

And further, in their letter to Nelson:

As tax payers and Christians, we are very concerned about this fundamental lack of balance and impartiality. We would therefore be interested to know to what extent, if any, the activities of National Museums Northern Ireland, and, in particular, the Ulster Museum, have been assessed against the statutory requirements of section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

This would seem to suggest that scientific opinion, at least if expressed in Norn Iron, should be subject to an equality audit. Perhaps they can find a judge who’s daft enough to agree to such a proposition. Perhaps the skeptical hobby community over in the imperial metropolis should be made aware of this.

So who are the Caleb Foundation? It’s worth taking a look at their Council of Reference. This includes a number of prominent fundamentalist clerics, including the Rev Ron Johnstone, Dr Paisley’s successor as Free Presbyterian moderator, as well as members of smaller fundie sects; Wallace Thompson of the Evangelical Protestant Society, who is currently promoting a campaign against the papal visit almost indistinguishable from that of Peter Tatchell and Terry Sanderson, and who acts as Council chairman; and an actual Stormont MLA, in the unmistakeable form of Mervyn Storey (DUP, North Antrim). Mervyn, as regular readers will know, has previous on this issue. The CF seems from its website to have particular preoccupations with Sabbatarianism (something that will resonate with Nelson McCausland, a former heid-yin of the Lord’s Day Observance Society) and creationism.

This brings us back to the Causeway, and, flush from their success with the culture minister, the CF claim to have lobbied tourism minister Arlene Foster (DUP, Dreary Steeples) with a view to getting the creationist viewpoint included in the forthcoming Causeway Interpretive Centre. Back in 2007, Arlene had responded to a cheeky question from Trevor Lunn (Alliance, Lagan Valley) about the age of the Causeway with the following official written answer:

Mrs A Foster: Geologists generally agree that the Giant’s Causeway is some 60 million years old. As you will be aware, however, there are alternative views in relation to the age of the Giant’s Causeway.

You may detect a lodging of tongue in cheek there, and I don’t think you’d be wrong. Arlene, of course, is not a fundamentalist but a member of the Church of Ireland – a body Dr Paisley used to revile as a Vatican-controlled apostate church – and could be forgiven for occasionally rolling her eyes at the utterances of her Biblical literalist comrades.

However, if Caleb don’t get anywhere with Arlene, they could always try environment minister Edwin Poots (DUP, Lagan Valley) who has the advantage of being a Wee Free, and who doesn’t believe in evolution either.

As ever, Professor Billy has the definitive take on what such an exhibition at the Interpretive Centre should involve. (I especially like the account of the Laird snacking on veda and cheese. And we really must get Billy hooked up with Sophia.) As it happens, I also read that the Georgia-based Gallery of Creation is auctioning off its entire collection of curiosities; perhaps Nelson could acquire them for the Ulster Museum?

Jim Shannon spakes til tha nation

Professor Billy his bate me til it, but niver mine. Yis can see here Jim Shannon frae th’yon Dupes spakein’ fur tha yinst time til tha Hoose o’ Communs. An’ big Jim his put in a few wee wurds o’ Ulster Scotch forbye, fur til lat tha fowks o’er thonder knaw all aboot tha cultural life o’ Strangfurd. It cud be th’yon Pairlamint heid-yins cudnae tell tha difference frae quhaniver Jim spakes in Inglis.

Sae here is Jim’s histaric wurds:

Thaur is monies a guid thang at A cud sae aboot tha fowk o mi Baille-Wick bot yince an firmaist A coont it a muckle oaner tae spake oot oan thair ahauf in tha Hoose O Commons. Tha Strengfird fowk ir tha satt o tha grun, an in thenkin thaim fer thair support A wud promis thaim at A’ll wrocht an dae fer thaim aa at A caun.

Wait til Ah tell yis, thon wis pure brock, but at laist he tries. Oney twa santences but! See up in Stormount, yer maun cud gulder awa’ aboot spuds an’ tha price o’ pigs in tha hamely tung tha hale day lang. Tha Guid Friday Agreement says he his every richt til dae it if he wants til. Parity o’ arseteem, they call it.

An’ mair wittins frae Liam.

Stormount culture heid-yin channels the late Archbishop Ussher

Stormont culture, arts and leisure minister Nelson McCausland (DUP, North Belfast) is a funny cove. There’s the matter of his extraordinary political trajectory from UUUP (remember them?) to Independent to UUP to DUP, but that isn’t the half of it. Nelson seems determined to encapsulate within his own person as many loyalist tropes as possible. He’s an Ulster-Scots enthusiast, and will recite chunks of Burns from memory if you ask him. He has an unnerving tendency to whip out his accordion to provide the masses with musical entertainment. He was for many years the heid-yin of the Lord’s Day Observance Society, a small group of earnest people who liked to go about chaining up swings on the Sabbath. He also used to be a British Israelite, and for all I know may still be. The great man even has his own blog, where you can read his whimsical thoughts.

So this story surprised me not one bit:

The culture minister has asked museums to give more prominence to Ulster-Scots, the Orange Order and alternative views on the origin of the universe.

Nelson McCausland wrote to the trustees of National Museums Northern Ireland (NMNI) saying he wants the issues given consideration in the short term.

The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) said it was part of its commitment to a shared future strategy.

It is understood National Museums NI has not yet responded to the letter.

Speaking on Wednesday, Mr McCausland said: “There are a range of perspectives and I want simply to have in there consideration given to reflecting the diversity of views in Northern Ireland.

“It’s also in fact a human rights issue and an equality issue because culture rights, the rights of people in Northern Ireland, should be implemented.”

In the letter, Mr McCausland said he believes his department and the trustees “share a common desire to ensure that museums are reflective of the views, beliefs and cultural traditions that make up society in Northern Ireland.”

He says National Museums’ contribution to the shared future agenda can best be achieved by “practical measures”.

Among these measures are consideration of how best to recognise the role of the Grand Lodge of Ireland and other fraternal organisations.


He specifically mentions the “Plantation to Power Sharing” exhibition which is currently on at the Ulster Museum and suggests that the trustees should consider changes to the exhibition before the summer months.

In terms of Ulster-Scots, Mr McCausland wrote that the local history exhibition should recognise the contribution of the Hamilton Montgomery Settlement, considered to be the most important event in Ulster-Scots history.

The issue of the origin of the universe and the different theories explaining it was previously raised by Mr McCausland’s DUP assembly colleague Mervyn Storey.

He said that he wanted the views of creationists – the concept of God creating the universe in contrast to the scientific theory of evolution – to be represented in the exhibitions.

Without specifically mentioning creationism, Mr McCausland’s letter includes a request for the trustees to consider how alternative views of the origin of the universe can be recognised and accomodated.

In a statement, DCAL said it welcomed the discussions on the NMNI’s potential contribution to the shared future agenda and was awaiting a response.

Meanwhile, SDLP culture spokesman Thomas Burns said it was “a mark of a liberal society that its cultural institutions should be free of party-political interference”.

“Any attempt to politicise public spaces or dictate to cultural institutions is a serious threat to our hopes of a shared society and should be resolutely resisted,” he said.

Sinn Fein’s Barry McElduff criticised Mr McCausland’s letter as “wholly unacceptable”.

Well, now. Museum exhibitions on Orangeism, or the north’s links with Scotland, are one thing; these are part of our history, like it or no. It’s the weird science of the Young Earth creationists, who are legion in the DUP, that raises eyebrows in the metropolis. Indeed, the Stephen Nolan show this morning had none other than Professor Dawkins, taking a break from the Lord George Gordon Re-Enactment Society to indulge in a bit of bashing of the straw minister.

This is the sort of thing that makes respectable unionists in places like North Down think twice about supporting the DUP; after all, could you really introduce these guys to David Cameron? It’s all a matter of how it reflects on Norn Iron in the all-important British view. As for me, I think Nelson should be a museum exhibit himself, as exemplifying the wondrous phenomenology of the unionist mind.

More on this from Mark.

A modest proposal

Well, with Brown exiting the stage, the talks on a Lib-Lab coalition are on as I write. And there’s one thing that’s annoying my brain in terms of the TV pundits and what they have to say about the arithmetic, and the prospect of a rainbow coalition.

First, the basic arithmetic. The winning post to get a bare majority in the Commons – taking into account the five abstentionist Sinn Féin MPs – is 323. Labour and the Lib Dems together have 315 – as the pundits point out, a little short, although more than the Tories can command on their own. Clearly the combo would require at least eight additional votes from somewhere.

Where could they pick up eight extra votes? To me, the answer has been obvious all along, but few people seem to have cottoned on to this. Where do you get eight votes? Easy.

You get them from the DUP.

At this point the bien-pensants go spare, at least those who have considered the issue. Because I find it highly amusing how British political correspondents don’t get the basics about this place. There was on Thursday night and Friday morning some talk on the teevee about how Cameron could count on the support of the “Ulster Unionists”. Would that perchance be the UUP led by Sir Reg Empey, which is indeed allied to Cameron? Because that party doesn’t have any MPs. What you’ve got is the DUP.

The pundits, thereafter, have tended to automatically lump the DUP into the Tory column. I assume this is because they’re reading Norn Iron politics on a left-right ideological spectrum, and thereby assuming the DUP have an affinity with the Tories. This doesn’t really work, for reasons I will get onto in the next post. Firstly, let me say that the DUP’s actual record in Westminster is one of wheeling and dealing with whomsoever can get them something they want, and indeed Sammy and Ian Jr have been going around the studios showing a bit of leg. Secondly, the DUP has just come out of an election campaign against Cameron’s local allies, fought on a fiercely anti-Tory basis. So an alignment with Cameron, while it can’t be ruled out, can’t be taken for granted either.

What’s more, this would put rather few demands on the Lib-Lab alliance. This wouldn’t be a question of having the DUP in government – we’re not looking at Sammy Wilson becoming minister for climate change – but of cooperation in Parliament, not voting down the budget and such. Nor do the DUP have any wacky policy demands – most of the stuff they care about is devolved to Stormont. What isn’t devolved is fiscal policy, and what they care about in terms of Westminster is protecting the block grant – this was their main line of attack against the Tories – and maybe getting a little cheque for police widows and such. And again, since Norn Iron is such a small place with a small economy, this would be much cheaper than any deal that might be struck with the SNP or Plaid – English taxpayers would hardly notice it, and it could be passed off as a peace process overhead.

This would probably be made more palatable if we put it in terms of the Norn Iron Grand Alliance, which would mean our thirteen MPs who take their seats collaborating to squeeze advantage out of the hung parliament. It helps that the other five are not averse to Lib-Labbery – the SDLP have taken the Labour whip for decades, Alliance have had close ties with the Lib Dems since the 1970s, and Lady Sylvia Hermon broke with the UUP due to her affinity with Labour. (One presumes there would also be moral support from the five abstentionists. Naomi Long raised this in the Assembly today, and Martin McGuinness was notably warm on the subject.) There are no automatically pro-Tory votes over here – nor, importantly, are there parties competing with Labour as the SNP does.

So, is this likely to happen? I don’t know, although if there is a Lib-Lab understanding it makes perfect sense in terms of the maths. It would, of course, cause conniptions in some of the Grauniad-reading advocates of a centre-left progressive alliance, that such a government would be reliant on hillbilly Paisleyites to get its agenda through. Which is sort of why there’s a part of me that hopes it happens, for thon would be deadly crack. And, let’s face it, a government of Blairites and Orange Bookers couldn’t be dragged any further to the right by the DUP.

Th’yon Dupes spake til the votin’ fowk

You may already have seen the DUP election broadcast, or then again if you’re outside Norn Iron you may not. Here it is for your enjoyment, with the addition of subtitles devised by Professor Billy McWilliams for the benefit of monoglot Ulster-Scots speakers. An’ if yis hap an o’er tae 1690 An’ All Thon, yer man his done the same fur the Shinners as well.

Down with the kids

You know, one of the constantly surprising things about following the blogosphere is the difference in attitudes and concerns that one is exposed to out here in the sticks, versus the attitudes and concerns of the imperial metropolis. Often the ideas that are the common currency of the Sasanach liberal-left leave me scratching my head, and I’m certain the feeling is mutual. This is something I often have to explain to friends over in the Big Smoke who don’t get much exposure to what animates people outside London.

Anyway, the Digital Economy Bill. Of late the left blogosphere has been paying a lot of attention to the banning of mephedrone and the Digital Economy Bill. The first I had a vague knowledge of, thanks to some rambunctious republicans up in Derry who have been taking physical action against retailers of “legal highs”; the second had barely passed through my field of vision, so I was startled to see the ruckus that’s been brewing around the issue of illegal downloads. I wasn’t aware that this was terribly important, but from what I gather it’s another bit of gormless authoritarianism from New Labour, setting out to criminalise filesharing teenagers. The reaction would then be of a piece with the new Pirate Party movements in Sweden and Germany.

And so it is that in the dying hours of this outgoing parliament, the Digital Economy Bill was passed, with opposition mainly coming from the Lib Dems plus a few Labour rebels. But yet, Norn Iron can at least hold its head high. Only one of our local MPs bothered to vote in the division, but he did vote against. Yes, it was that well-known champion of youth culture, the Rev Ian Paisley, using the last vote of his forty-year parliamentary career to lend solidarity to the users of Pirate Bay.

What did Papa Doc, not known as one of our great libertarians, have in mind? The DUP has been vague on this point, but perhaps his grandkids cajoled him into it. Then again, I’ve long felt that Big Ian was something of an anarchist at heart – he certainly enjoys tweaking the nose of authority. But anyway, at least momentarily, the libertarians have an unlikely ally. One would expect Liberal Conspiracy and such to take this opportunity to pay fulsome tribute to Dr Paisley’s support for online freedom.

Area man not amused by Roman rumpo

Due to a passing illness – not serious but annoying – plus a few work commitments, posting has been a bit light round here lately. Normal service will resume shortly, but here’s another cracker from the Tele:

Ban Spartacus orgy filth, says DUP MLA

Say what?

A DUP MLA has called for a controversial TV series featuring extreme violence and explicit sex scenes to be banned from UK TV.

Spartacus, which is based on the world of gladiators in the Roman Empire, is so rude that campaigners are trying to block it from British screens.

Sounds intriguing…

The TV series features full-frontal nudity, extreme violence and explicit scenes of orgies.

Did I say intriguing? Positively enticing would be more like it. But of course this doesn’t fly in some local quarters:

Last night DUP Assembly Member Mervyn Storey added his voice to calls for the series to be banned in the UK.

“We have been fast going beyond the realms of taste and this series will further plunge us into the abyss,” he said.

“I have grave concerns about the content of much of our TV viewing, and this is something which I believe should not be on our airwaves.”

There’s also a quote from the late Mrs Whitehouse’s NVLA, now trading as Mediawatch, but disappointingly none from DUP culture minister Nelson McCausland, nor from the DUP’s resident film buff Jeffrey Donaldson. Perhaps they can be enticed to lend Mervyn some moral support.

Actually, one of my bugbears is that – apart from the classic I, Claudius – TV drama has not really made the most of ancient Rome’s potential. The recent BBC/HBO series Rome was fun, but it was hindered a little by actors talking like they were playing EastEnders in togas.

Senator Philo: I don’t believe I’m hearing this.

Senator Grantus: Sorted, bruv.

Caesar: Get outta my pub!

It won’t do, when we’re used to ancient Romans talking like Derek Jacobi or Patrick Stewart (although, strangely, never with Italian accents). I would also point out that the subject matter of those Pompeii wall murals would make Mervyn Storey’s hair stand on end, before you even get to the Roman authors. Juvenal is a personal favourite – he’s an extremely funny satirist if you can tolerate his repeated jibes at foreigners, gays and Jews – and there’s enough source material to be as lascivious as you like. Gladiator fights and the occasional naked cock aren’t the half of it. If Mervyn had been paying attention in Latin, he’d know this.

Mind you, if they dubbed the dialogue into Ulster Scots, the DUP could hardly object. Nelson might even dish out a grant for it.

Papa Doc to bow out of Westminster

And so it is reported that Big Ian will indeed be relinquishing the North Antrim seat at the upcoming Westminster election. Well, no matter what reservations I have about Big Ian – and they are many – the Commons will certainly be a more colourless place without him. And, since he’s now 83 and visibly frail – though if you see him evangelising at City Hall on a Friday lunchtime that great booming voice still does the business – we can’t begrudge him a belated retirement.

The North Antrim DUP will be holding a selection meeting next week, but it’s widely expected that Baby Doc will get the nomination. The power of the Paisley name remains strong there, but it remains to be seen whether the Paisley dynasty can be carried on. Jim Allister is standing in North Antrim, and is hell-bent on winning what will be a fight to the death for the soul of rightwing unionism. Had Big Ian stood, he would probably have won; Wee Ian will be a much shakier bet, and Sunny Jim will have a fresh spring in his step today.

If you haven’t seen it already, you might like to cast an eye over my review of David Gordon’s The Fall of the House of Paisley. It’s a most enjoyable book, and suddenly topical again. We eagerly await The Fall of the House of Robinson.

Did the spooks have a hand in bringing down our First Family? The Phoenix thinks they might have done…

If you don’t get the Phoenix regularly – and you really should – the latest issue has some stories that make it well worth picking up. As a connoisseur of western politics I’m particularly interested in the reports on page 10 from the feuding warlord clans of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (aka Donegal). But what’s really caught my eye is the report on page 7 of the ongoing travails of the Robinson family. Goldhawk detects the spoor of MI5:

They had plenty of Robinson material to work with. On the sex front alone, they would have known that Iris was having intimate meetings in secluded spots in the back of the former Shah of Iran’s blue armoured Mercedes. Some of Peter’s “business friends” had bought it as a present for him.

This is true. I kid you not, Peter is the proud owner of the Shah’s motor, which has kind of a nice piquancy. What we really need, of course, is a local analogue of Ryszard Kapuściński to write a portrait of these fascinating characters.

Long before Iris was leaving black lingerie on the four-poster in her chandeliered bedroom for Suzanne Breen to note in the Sunday Tribune, MI5 would have logged in their Registry details of her drives around London in her MG sports car with a fun-loving DUP politician.

Crikey! Did I say Kapuściński? Maybe he would have to co-author it with Jackie Collins.

Indeed, someone in that 400-strong army of spies based at Palace Barracks, Holywood, may have also paid attention to more boring property transactions involving an office block in Newtownards, presently being investigated by the Serious Organised Crime Unit, according to a statement pointedly issued by the PSNI.

It’s long been rumoured that senior paramilitaries on both sides of the fence were involved in property deals in certain places outside the immediate conflict zone, of which Ards is one. This is to say nothing of the intimate relationships between councillors and developers. I tell you, if there’s a serious investigation of dodgy property deals in the north, there will be an awful lot of red faces, and not only in the DUP.

Goldhawk concludes with a significant reference to “the enigmatic evangelical Dublin preacher turned RAF officer-chaplain turned gay-converting psychiatrist Selwyn Black”, and by speculating that, with Robbo putting a stymie on the policing and justice negotiations before Christmas, the spooks decided to do the first minister over.

Well, perhaps. The record of spookery in the north of Ireland is such that it’s foolish to ever rule it out. I would add a caveat, though, that one of the things bringing forward the transmission of Spotlight – the timing of which the Phoenix finds so significant – was a level of discreet murmuring from quarters not a million miles removed from Sinn Féin about an impending scandal involving the DUP leader. One may further speculate that some republicans might have both felt frustrated at the DUP’s behaviour in the P&J talks, and simultaneously anxious to deflect attention from Gerry Adams’ family problems. (And that’s without even getting into possible spookery in the Adams saga.)

In the end, I’m not sure the provenance matters that much. Norn Iron is a small and incestuous place, where the proverbial dogs on the street retail inside stories far too scandalous to make it into print. Many, even most, of them may be apocryphal, but it holds true that nothing in this place stays secret very long.

Rud eile: I notice from my Roman Martyrology that today is the feast day of St Francis de Sales, patron saint of Catholic writers – and, by extension, Catholic bloggers too. It’s a good time then to give a shout out to Red Maria, in the hope of much entertaining polemic to come.

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