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.]

Mike, Fearghal and the rise of celebrity candidates

I have a confession to make. You’ll find this deeply shocking, but I am not a member of the Ulster Unionist Party. I have, in fact, never been a member of the Ulster Unionist Party, nor do I feel the slightest desire to join the Ulster Unionist Party. Now, if Reg Empey is to be believed, that makes me the ideal Ulster Unionist candidate.

As we approach the Westminster election, candidacies are coming thick and fast. Yesterday there was an announcement from the South Down and Londonderry Party, which I’ll get to presently. The DUP association in Strangford also selected gun-toting Ulster-Scots speaker Jim Shannon to succeed Iris Robinson. But what I want to concentrate on is the snappily named Ulster Conservative and Unionist New Force.

The laborious process of UCUNF candidate selection has still not concluded, but joint candidates are in place for nine of the eighteen constituencies. North Down is of course a straggler due to the Sylvia Problem, but there are a number of other strategic areas that haven’t been decided yet. Of those that have, all are from the Unionist side of the Forza Nuova, and are an interesting mix of time-servers and newish faces. For instance, party deputy leader Danny Kennedy once again runs in Newry/Armagh. Danny is widely reckoned to be one of the Unionists’ more substantial figures, and he might do well in a winnable seat, but down in Newry his only function will be to have the crap knocked out of him by Conor Murphy. And in Lagan Valley we have a familiar face though a new electoral contender in Daphne Trimble, wife of David. Daphne is universally acknowledged to be by far the more personable half of the Trimble partnership, and she has the added bonus of really having it in for turncoat Jeffrey Donaldson, though barring an unforeseen mishap it’s hard to see Jeffrey Boy’s majority being troubled.

On the starrier end, which is what we’re getting to, East Belfast will be contested by rugby legend Trevor Ringland, who dipped his toe into politics a while back by fronting an ill-fated campaign to try and persuade Catholics to become small-u unionists, although that does make him a decent fit for UCUNF. Meanwhile Upper Bann, as predicted, will be contested by Flash Harry, Norn Iron’s leading Freddie Mercury impersonator. He’ll save every one of us! And finally in Strangford you have former UTV news anchor turned victims’ commissioner Mike Nesbitt, who isn’t AFAIK a member of the Unionist Party, though presumably he’ll join if elected. This also means that the duly selected UU candidate for Strangford, Phil Smith, who’s a party officer and fancied his chances, is rather pissed off at a parachutist arriving ahead of him.

Well, it does make a sort of sense, in that TV Mike is the kind of postmodern candidate we haven’t really had here before (if you discount Rainbow George) and his candidacy fits in with the logic of UCUNF. He’s stressing personality, running virtually as an independent with only a nominal party branding. Who knows, it might work.

However, this is not to say that the inherent contradictions of the UCUNF project have gone away. This is the problematic of why the British Tories would ally with the Unionists, who they must know are more trouble than they’re worth; and why the UUs would want to form an alliance with the minuscule Ulster Tories, many of whom are disgruntled defectors from their own party.

There are a number of aspects to this. The political justification is pan-UK non-sectarian civic unionism, something that’s greatly excited the Toryboy wing of the UU blogosphere. More prosaically, Reg Empey has got some material backup as well as a workable idea – something his party has never been big on – while “Dave” Cameron may have a couple of unionist seats he can count on in a hung parliament (then again, he may not). The Tories, although their Norn Iron organisation doesn’t amount to much, also held out the prospect of one or two Catholic candidates to underline UCUNF’s non-sectarian credentials. They also extracted from Reggie the promise that there would be a UCUNF candidate in every constituency, the rationale for which was that every elector should have the opportunity to vote for the next UK
government.

Now then. The big problem is that non-sectarianism doesn’t sit easily with the Unionist psyche, and those jungle drums are mighty tempting. The secondary problem is a certain lack of tactic finesse both on Tory and Unionist parts. There was a time, when the Iris Robinson scandal was at its height, that Reggie could really have seized the initiative and put the DUP under serious pressure. Instead he chose to fart around in “unionist unity” talks that didn’t really go very far but did let the Dupes off the hook. In doing so, he managed to mislay the two Catholic Tories who had been induced to stand for UCUNF, Peter McCann and Sheila Davidson, although rumour has it that there are efforts to get them to unresign.

Ground zero for this is Fermanagh/South Tyrone, where rural intrigue around unity candidates has a long history, and where local unionists are hellbent on getting rid of the sitting PSF MP, Michelle Gildernew. To be blunt, neither the DUP’s Arlene Foster nor the UUP’s Tom Elliott stand a chance without a unity candidacy, but neither will stand down for the other and so the search is on for a compromise candidate. The word was that retired RUC detective Norman Baxter was in the frame, but Norman has stated that, while he’d be interested in being a cross-community candidate, he’s definitely not interested in being the pan-Prod candidate. Yet that’s what Fermanagh unionists want.

Even so, the maths are tricky. The last election ended up like this:

Gildernew (PSF)       18,638  38.2%
Foster (DUP)            14,056  28.8%
Elliott (UUP)            8,869   18.2%
Gallagher (SDLP)      7,230   14.8%

So in theory a unionist unity candidate should be able to win… but it’s not that simple in practice. In the first place, Michelle’s effective performance as agriculture minister – and there are an awful lot of farmers in the constituency – would tend to boost her standing. Secondly, a unionist unity candidate would need to be able to turn out virtually a solid unionist vote to get up to around that 47% mark. And even then, look at all those juicy SDLP votes ripe for the squeezing. For a unionist unity victory you would need the SDLP vote to stay substantial, or at least not to fall below the 6% mark. However, such are the sectarian dynamics of the area that even the sniff of a pan-Prod candidacy would send local nationalists rallying behind Michelle and put a severe squeeze on the SDLP. So even if you got it, the plan may not work.

Not to mention that a pan-Prod candidacy – even if the candidate entered into the sectarian headcount has a UCUNF branding – completely undermines the “non-sectarian civic unionism” shtick of the Forza Nuova. In Fermanagh/South Tyrone, you can be non-sectarian or you can be unionist, but nobody has yet discovered how to be both.

Sticking with Fermanagh/South Tyrone, there’s that dramatic announcement from the SDLP. We had all assumed that veteran party standard-bearer Tommy Gallagher would be getting yet another run, but he hasn’t been very successful in the past and now Margaret Ritchie has acquired a Mike Nesbitt of her very own. Yes, it’s former UTV political correspondent Fearghal McKinney! (Cue wild cheering from broad masses.)

Whether this does any good in terms of reviving the SDLP in the west remains to be seen. Fearghal is an articulate enough fellow and wouldn’t be unattractive as a candidate, but I have the sneaking suspicion he’s on a hiding to nothing here. Then again, given the job losses and straitened financial circumstances at UTV, perhaps Mike and Fearghal are starting a trend. Will we see a Frank Mitchell candidacy in South Down? Which party will be imaginative enough to stand Adrian Logan, Tina Campbell or Julian Simmons? You know, if the people of Nottinghamshire get Gloria de Piero as an MP, I think they may have the better deal of it than we have.

Then again, there’s also the occupational hazard of celebrity candidates. Not having spent years toiling away on district councils sorting out people’s housing benefit, they tend to get very impatient when things don’t go their way. Just look at George Lee.

More thoughts on this from Mark.

Rud eile: Apropos of this occasional discussion we have about how it’s not just what you do but how you do it that matters, I found this interesting. It’s from the wacky world of atheism, but leftists should find some familiar traits, especially when it comes to bad behaviour online.

Rud eile fós: B16’s weekly General Audiences are interesting enough in their own right, being essentially a seminar from one of the most distinguished theologians alive, but it’s important to watch out for those casual asides. Rocco identifies a classic zinger in this week’s talk.

Two poor saps fight for world’s most thankless job

Schopenhauer

It beats me why anyone would want to be leader of the South Down and Londonderry Party. And yet, incredibly, two people do want it, with both social development minister Margaret Ritchie (South Down) and incumbent deputy leader Alasdair McDonnell (South Belfast) now having declared themselves. What’s even odder, as Brian Feeney points out in a pithy analysis, is that the SDLP has been in existence since 1970 and this is the first time it’s ever had a contested leadership election. Gerry Fitt was leader at the foundation (had anyone chosen to challenge him, they would have soon discovered that Gerry was a dab hand at mobilising the graveyard vote); John Hume was proclaimed leader by acclamation, as was Mark Durkan.

Indeed, the party wouldn’t be having an election now if Alasdair McDonnell had his way. He’s publicly called for Margaret Ritchie to withdraw from the leadership race and form a “dream ticket” as his deputy. She won’t, of course, but it just goes to show that there’s nothing more elitist than Humespeak.

Brian remarks:

It’s not exactly a glittering field. In political parlance, neither is ‘a big beast’.

Well, we know Brian has a rather sour attitude towards his former party colleagues, but he does at least know them well. And what’s at stake for the party?

The party has been bleeding votes for a decade, a loss which became a haemorrhage in 2004 when the party dropped 100,000 votes in the European election.

Next year’s general election is another critical test. The SDLP must hold its three Westminster seats.

The immediate task for a new leader is therefore clear: to restore organisation and morale and stem the flow of votes.

In short, it’s a task that makes Gordon Brown look like he was born under a lucky star. The major talking point about the SDLP in recent years has been whether or not it would expire before the Unionist Party did. Look, for example, at the results from the 2007 Stormont election. The SDLP’s first preference vote was below one quota in Fermanagh/South Tyrone, East Derry, North Antrim, South Antrim, Upper Bann, North Belfast and West Belfast – although it retained seats in all these constituencies, these MLAs had to be elected in the later counts, largely via the transfer of PSF surpluses. In West Tyrone the party actually cobbled together slightly more than a quota, but lost its seat due to a lunatic strategy of running three candidates. The SDLP has very few surefire winners even in a Stormont PR poll, never mind for Westminster.

Mark you, even though the SDLP has no chance of increasing its three-seat haul, it does have some advantages. Mark Durkan is justly popular in Derry and, while Martina Anderson will give him a run for his money, it would be a huge shock if he failed to win there. In South Down, despite Eddie McGrady’s advancing years, he does have an incumbency advantage and can’t have been harmed by Caitríona Ruane’s travails as education minister. South Belfast, of course, is a hugely unpredictable three-way marginal. It will be a close-run thing.

So what do the candidates for the party leadership have to offer? Here’s Brian:

Organisation and finance are areas regarded as Alasdair McDonnell’s forte. A successful businessman himself, he is also a formidable motivator, but a polarising figure in the SDLP.

He and Mark Durkan did not gel as leader and deputy leader. McDonnell was not allowed a free hand in organising as he had hoped and allowed his frustration to show.

The good doctor can be ruthless and forceful and does not suffer fools. For some in the party his elevation to deputy leader was a shock and the same people now fear for their future if he were to become leader.

Interestingly enough, he’s less popular with those who’ve have close experience of him than with those who know him as a competent media performer. Nobody doubts the man’s ambition, but along the way he’s seriously pissed off so many party colleagues as to put a question mark over his electability within the party. Note also Durkan’s resignation statement drawing attention to the issue of double jobbing, something that could very easily be interpreted as a dig at Alasdair. Lucky for him that it’s a delegate conference and not the Assembly party that decides the contest.

You could see some of McDonnell’s opponents lined up behind Margaret Ritchie as she declared her candidature.

One is Carmel Hanna, MLA from McDonnell’s own South Belfast constituency. Another is Alex Attwood from West Belfast.

I like Carmel Hanna, but her influence is limited by Alasdair’s iron grip on the South Belfast SDLP. And wee Alex’s record as an electoral strategist surely counts against him.

For many people in the party Margaret Ritchie is the ‘Stop McDonnell’ candidate. For every member who believes McDonnell is exactly what is needed to shake the party up, blow fresh air through it, there’s a member who would be horrified if he became leader, fearing that he’s too brusque, volatile and unpredictable. It looks like a tight race which could turn pointed.

And it would be none the worse for all that. A cobbling together of a “dream ticket” that would paper over the very real differences in the party would arguably be far more damaging in the long run than a big barney that would at least get those issues out in the open. You can’t plot a strategy if you’re not going to have an argument about strategy.

Margaret Ritchie hopes to garner support among the party’s strongest areas: South Down and Foyle where the biggest branches are. Ritchie’s popularity in the SDLP has soared after her dogged stance against money potentially going to fund groups connected to loyalist paramilitaries. Being attacked by Peter Robinson didn’t do her any harm either. However, while Alasdair McDonnell could never be criticised for lack of ambition and drive, Margaret Ritchie has always been content to remain in the shadow of Eddie McGrady, working for decades in his constituency office and unhesitatingly accepting his decision to stand again for Westminster, both in 2005 and again next year at the age of 75.

She is the safe, establishment candidate. She will rock no boats. She threatens no one in the SDLP.

Indeed not, if she can’t suggest gently to Eddie McGrady that he might like to consider retirement.

The same can’t be said for McDonnell who believes some people in the SDLP need threatened. He’s a firm believer that in political parties hot air rises and dead wood floats and that, if there isn’t change, the SDLP will submerge under the weight of that dead wood.

I’m not sure about this theory of regeneration through hot air, but Alasdair is surely the man to test it out.

Where will he get his support if Ritchie holds on to the big branches?

First, his own constituency. Although his running mate, Carmel Hanna, supports Ritchie, McDonnell still rules the roost there. Other parts of Belfast are not important because there are no SDLP members in large swathes of the city.

This is true, as Brian well knows. In West Belfast, for instance, there is still a substantial SDLP vote, but the party probably has fewer paid-up members in the constituency than the Workers Party. One can extend this to many of the rural areas, where local fiefs can get elected by name recognition without needing branches. This doesn’t necessarily make for bad representation – someone like Dominic Bradley, for instance, is a decent and useful public representative – but there’s an obvious problem for the longer term in that many of the fiefs are getting a bit long in the tooth. As Brian points out:

The technicalities of the election aside, the new leader faces serious problems, the first of which is the average age of party members and elected representatives. The SDLP seems to have frozen about 25 years ago, around the time of the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

Incredibly, Mark Durkan – the outgoing leader at 49 – is their youngest MLA. Margaret Ritchie is 51 and Alasdair McDonnell 60.

Compare David Cameron (43) or Brian Cowen (49). There’s something wrong with a party whose current leader is its youngest MLA.

There are no visible young figures in the party. Yes, they do have a few young councillors, but none has developed a political profile. None is an obvious candidate for stardom.

It’s a paradox, isn’t it? Gerry Adams is a good dozen years older than Durkan, and most of his kitchen cabinet are about the same age as Gerry, but he still looks like he leads a more youthful organisation. Does the SDLP have people who are analogous to Conor Murphy or Michelle Gildernew or John O’Dowd? If so, they’re well hidden.

Finally, policy. What does the SDLP want now that the Good Friday Agreement has been achieved?

They exude an attitude of entitlement and bitterness, forgetting that voters don’t care about past achievements.

The leading figures spend their time attacking Sinn Fein’s policies. When John Hume was leader everyone knew what the SDLP wanted. They were sick hearing him repeating it. What does the new SDLP leader want? Can either McDonnell or Ritchie enunciate a separate identity for the SDLP, look to the future, carve out a path to follow that will not only enthuse members but attract new young recruits?

And this theme of entitlement and bitterness rings quite true. Alex Attwood has often seemed bemused at why voters don’t turn out in droves to thank the SDLP for having pioneered the peace process. Moreover, you can’t base a popular appeal on “we hate the Provos”, as the Workers Party discovered – although to be fair, the WP always had some positive ideas too. You need something that you actually stand for.

And the lack of actual policy is striking, although par for the course in the north. The Phoenix was saying the other week that, where Durkan was a Labour man, McDonnell was essentially a Fianna Fáiler. If this is so, it’s a matter of milieu, as Alasdair went to UCD and is mates with lots of FFers, while Mark worked closely with John Hume and so would have had exposure to the European social democrats. None of this has filtered through into any clear ideological division.

This, ultimately, is what’s going to be the new leader’s task – to lay out what the SDLP is for in the New Dispensation. If the winner can’t do that, it may well be that, as Brian speculates, the party’s first leadership election could be its last. Often with a Brian Feeney article on the SDLP, there seems to be an undertone of “Why didn’t those bozos make me the leader?” Today, Brian may feel that he had a lucky escape.

Durko contemplates end of road

durkan

The South Down and Londonderry Party are dead men walking. The poor fuckers just don’t know it yet.

Although I suspect Mark Durkan might have an inkling. It’s the only interpretation I can put on Durko’s decision, at the ripe old age of 49, to announce he’s standing down from the party leadership some time next year. And the manner of his doing so raises some questions in itself.

Firstly, Durko has said that his top priority is to defend his Foyle constituency at the Westminster election. Although he’s an effective MP, this may not be a foregone conclusion, and I suspect Martina Anderson will give him a run for his money. The SDLP should have learnt by now to be wary of setting up Battles of Stalingrad in advance – Bríd Rodgers’ run in West Tyrone in 2001 was supposed to be the SDLP’s Stalingrad, only it turned out to be more like the Charge of the Light Brigade – but there’s no doubt that losing Derry, even by a whisker, would be a psychological blow from which the SDLP would find it difficult to recover.

Actually, the next Westminster election looks like being pretty hairy all round for the SDLP. Alasdair McDonnell’s position in South Belfast is shaky in the extreme, being dependent on a) his ability to put a serious squeeze on Alex Maskey and b) a fairly even split in the unionist vote – if either the DUP or UCUNF candidates pulls decisively ahead of the other, Alasdair is toast. In South Down, things are unpredictable: Eddie McGrady still hasn’t indicated whether he’ll stand again (he’s almost as old as Big Ian, but the Dochtúir Mór seems to fancy another run in North Antrim), and Caitríona Ruane is not the hot prospect she looked before becoming education minister. In the five Shinner-held seats, the SDLP are so far behind they may as well not bother. So some fairly marginal considerations could determine whether the SDLP come out of it with three seats or none.

No, I think Durko, who’s a fairly likeable, intelligent and capable guy, has seen the writing on the wall. He may have been John Hume’s anointed successor, but St John left him with a party in what may be politely termed a shambles – to the extent that it’s a party at all.

There are two issues here, the organisational and the sociological. Organisationally speaking, the SDLP was always defined by local fiefdoms. It was thus in the days of Gerry Fitt, who managed to con the London media into thinking he was some great socialist, but whose base in West Belfast was maintained by a potent mixture of parish-pump clientelism, widespread electoral fraud and, when the occasion warranted it, strident sectarian tubthumping – Gerry’s “organisation” basically consisted of his indefatigable wife Anne. In the rural areas, the SDLP organisation followed a predictable pattern. In a given area, you’d have a local worthy – perhaps a doctor, solicitor or head teacher – who would have done something in the civil rights movement and had been dining out on it ever since. He would have enough standing in his area to get elected onto the council on name recognition alone, but wouldn’t bother his arse building a branch. In fact, building a branch would be regarded with suspicion as possibly building up a rival. The “branch” would thus consist of a handful of his friends and family who would knock on doors at election time.

So you have a situation where Alasdair McDonnell gets a big vote out of Malone and Stranmillis, but it’s almost impossible to get anyone in South Belfast to join the SDLP – the party seems to barely exist in the area outside elections, despite Alasdair claiming enough in Westminster and Stormont allowances to employ a small army of workers. No, the party coasted along for many years on its local personalities, on the high public regard for St John Hume, and above all, on being the default option for nationalists who wanted a non-violent option on the ballot paper. The retirement of the big names and the increased respectability of the Provos has knocked the feet out from under them, and it’s no surprise that they are increasingly confined to Derry and South Down, the two areas where they did have a machine, and some middle-class ghettos in Greater Belfast.

(We may parenthetically note that the party’s 20-year control of Queens Students Union – which is as weird, in British terms, as UKIP controlling a students union – drew on the default option, as republican activism was banned and so the Catholic majority would vote for whatever Catholic candidate was available. Whatever about their ruthless use of incumbency advantage and patronage, once republicans were legalised the numerically small SDLP couldn’t hang on for long.)

But if we turn to the sociological aspect, there’s obviously a gap in the market for a Catholic party that isn’t called Sinn Féin. Even in the Republic of West Belfast, there are layers of people – often middle class, yes, but also located in the more respectable end of the working class – who would be boiled in oil before they’d vote Provo. But these layers are relatively middle-aged and elderly – those under 30, if they vote at all, only vote for one party – and are thoroughly demoralised. Between 1996 and 2007, the SDLP vote in West Belfast plummeted from 11,087 to 4,110 while the PSF vote stayed relatively stable in absolute terms, only rising from 22,355 to 23,631. But when you consider that in this period PSF went from 53% to 70% in that constituency, and the SDLP declined from 26% to 12%, you have to factor in whose supporters are turning out and whose aren’t. To be brutal, you wouldn’t bother voting for Alex Attwood unless you’re a political masochist, and if you’re a real political masochist you may as well vote for John Lowry.

So there is a gap in the market, but it isn’t obvious who’s going to fill that gap. Honestly, it may as well be Fianna Fáil. In this context, ideology is not nearly as important as class, and having a leader who’ll play well with the professional classes. Actually, I’ve never believed that ideology really played much of a role in the SDLP anyway, despite the much-touted divisions between the party’s nationalist and social democratic wings. Denis Haughey was Hume’s aide in Strasbourg and a great advocate of post-nationalist European social democracy, but his 1992 election campaign in Mid-Ulster was still one of the most nakedly sectarian campaigns I’ve ever seen. John Hume Thought is not irrelevant, especially when it comes to SDLP members’ self-image, but it’s never been an ideological party.

And this is what’s going to come into play when the party chooses its new leader. (We may note that Durko’s announcement included his intention to step down from the Assembly so as to end double jobbing. This might spike the guns of the multi-jobbing deputy leader Alasdair McDonnell, who manages to combine Westminster, Stormont and his medical practice.) You’re getting names touted about like John Dallat or Margaret Ritchie or Allbran Maginness, all of whom are able enough people, but you’d be sorely pressed to find any serious political issues at stake, either on a higher ideological level or in terms of the peace process. No, what’s going to come into play is whether anyone has any ideas about burnishing the tired SDLP brand and making it appealing again.

And if all else fails, Mark Durkan might figure that, Derry people’s legendary unwillingness to leave their city notwithstanding, he could do something on a broader stage. You never know, there may be a vacancy for the Fianna Fáil leadership…

More on this from 1967.

The end of academic selection, and Catholic acquiescence thereat

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If there’s one thing about the north of Ireland that has continually disappointed leftists, it’s the non-emergence of class politics. To be more precise, it’s the failure of reality to match up to a schema whereby a big class struggle will emerge and in short order dissolve sectarian politics.

But that isn’t to say that socio-economic divisions don’t manifest themselves. Rather, it’s that they don’t manifest themselves in a cross-sectarian way, but rather within the communal blocs. This fits with the federal structure of our politics, and is more or less what you’d expect under the New Dispensation. There’s been something of that lately around the issue of the reform of post-primary education. I therefore direct readers to Fionnuala O’Connor’s last column in the Irish News – it isn’t vintage Fionnuala in that she skirts around the issue without saying what she thinks, but does highlight a few interesting points. As indeed does the issue as a whole.

One thing that’s been sort of perplexing is that virtually the only opposition to Caitríona Ruane’s grand plans has come from unionists in the Assembly and their outriders in our press. At Stormont, all the unionist MLAs with the exception of the PUP’s Dawn Purvis have been pro-grammar, and all the nationalists without exception have supported a non-selective system. This is strange, not least because of recent figures showing that, in terms of exam results, nine of the top ten schools were in the Catholic maintained sector. Meanwhile, prestigious Protestant schools like Campbell and Methody are not performing as one might expect.

There’s a backstory here in terms of demographics. First you have to realise that the majority of the school-age population is Catholic, while the Protestant school-age population is gradually declining against the capacity in the controlled sector. This means that Protestant secondaries have been facing closure, while Protestant grammars have kept up their headcount by diversifying their intake. Looking at Methody as an example, which has had to deal with the Protestant exodus from south Belfast, it hasn’t really diversified much in class terms – its geographical catchment area includes Sandy Row, and you have to draw the line somewhere – but it has taken in quite a number of kids from upwardly mobile Catholic families as well as the ethnic communities. Other Protestant grammars have quietly become less selective, so that instead of taking in the top twenty percent in their area they may be taking in the top thirty to forty percent. Not a comprehensive system, but not exactly grammars as we used to know them.

What is difficult to figure out is why the unionists are so hellbent on retaining the grammars when organic factors have been transforming their character like this. I can only conclude that it’s part of unionism’s general reverence for the status quo. And the broadening of the grammars’ intake actually lessens pressure for reform. As I say, the PUP is the exception, but their heavily underclass vote has different priorities from the more respectable end of the working class.

On the Catholic side, things are even odder. Coming back to Fionnuala’s column, she mentions Derry-based educator Fr Ignatius McQuillan, who has been sounding off in the media about this. When I heard him on the radio the other day, Fr Iggy was condemning the Catholic bishops for bowing the knee to the agenda of Sinn Féin and the trade unions. It’s unusual enough to hear this sort of dissent from within the northern Church – during the Troubles, a grand total of three priests aired political disagreements with the hierarchy, and one of those was Pat Buckley, who doesn’t count – but the points of interest go well beyond that. Why, Fr Iggy is asking in essence, is there no opposition?

One may well ask why there is no opposition even within the unions. Whenever you have a teaching union official on Talk Back – whether they’re from INTO, the NAS/UWT or the Protestant Association of Teachers UTU – they all seem to be very happy with supporting whatever Caitríona wants to do. And yet, given that lots of their members actually work in the grammars, their anti-selective stance can’t be universally popular within the unions. And yet, you don’t ever hear a hint of this. Puzzling.

But more puzzling yet is the position of the Catholic bishops, who have acted as enforcers for the Department of Education in ordering schools within the maintained sector not to proceed with transfer tests beyond next year. That in itself poses problems for those right-on activists who would like to believe that the hierarchy are hidebound reactionaries bent on spoiling our shiny new comprehensive future.

And then we turn to the Patriotic Catholic Association SDLP, who continually make me scratch my head. Listen, I can understand why the Shinners want to abolish selection. It’s a policy that would appeal to their traditional base. It would be less appealing to the layer of former SDLP supporters they would like to cannibalise, but it could only be a potential deal-breaker if the SDLP put up a fight on the issue. Yet they won’t.

I’m not certain, but there may be an ideological element to this, to the extent that the SDLP has an ideology. When they had their split with the big Belfast personalities thirty years ago, Gerry and Paddy’s main charge was that the party had abandoned its socialism in favour of Catholic conservatism. Granted that there are people in the party like Eddie McGrady who really are Catholic conservatives (and where is Eddie on this issue?), it depends what you mean by socialism. The gas-and-water NILPism favoured by Gerry and Paddy never had much traction in the post-1979 SDLP, but from the dominant Derry faction you had the esoteric ideological blend known as Humespeak, which amongst other elements, like a thoroughgoing bureaucratism and a bizarre attachment to the European Union, also had a sort of lukewarm egalitarianism that meant St John Hume or Séamus Mallon were never that far out of place when taking their places on the green benches beside Neil Kinnock.

Humespeak as an ideology never really meant much to your average SDLP voter, who is a respectable codger simply looking for a Catholic party to vote for that isn’t called Sinn Féin. I like Joe Hendron a lot personally, but as a politician he understood that he didn’t need any social or economic policies – he just needed not to be Gerry Adams. Where Humespeak came into its own, though, was as the ideology of the young Turks who for twenty years ran Queens Students Union (for British readers, this is a bit like UKIP running a students union, only that doesn’t quite capture how ghastly it was), the training ground for the party’s meagre cadre. Durkan and Attwood, the original young Turks, were the best of the bunch – when it came to the bozos who succeeded them, they had to be seen to be believed.

So you have Caitríona announcing a really progressive-sounding Grand Plan culled from reports by Queens education department, and the SDLP have nothing critical to say about it. Perhaps it’s that their ideology – the fact that they like to think of themselves as social democrats – disarms them. Perhaps it’s a general caution. Yet, there is populist hay to be made there amongst the Catholic middle class. It’s not as if the grammars are unpopular – those ambitious Derry parents practically battering down the doors of Lumen Christi are surely Durko’s natural electorate. And, even if you’re nervous about taking on the Catholic hierarchy, Fr Iggy has shown the way.

Maybe it’s my cynical nature, but I suspect there might be an element here of the Durkan-Attwood brains trust being too clever for their own good. They may have calculated that the unionists at Stormont would use the weighted voting system in the Assembly to torpedo Caitríona’s plans, and then they could posture a little without actually having had to take a serious stand that might have alienated some potential voters. That would certainly fit their track record.

But it’s all terribly weak, isn’t it? To be brutally honest, a party that won’t fight for the interests of its base is a party that doesn’t deserve to exist. And if the South Down and Londonderry Party is going to go extinct, with this sort of performance, it only has itself to blame.

Priorité à gauche

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As already related, this last election wasn’t terribly good for the South Down and Londonderry Party. They could only stand still in percentage terms compared with their terrible result in the last Euros five years back, and this despite Allbran being a much more convincing candidate than Martin Morgan ever was. This isn’t surprising when you consider the actual dynamics of the SDLP outside their two or three strongholds. The paradigmatic SDLP presence in a rural northern town would centre around one prominent individual – a solicitor, GP or head teacher – who did something in the civil rights movement and has been dining out on it ever since. This personality would have enough name recognition to get elected to the council in his own right, but would absolutely refuse to build a branch in case he built up a rival. With the founding generation retiring or dying, it’s no wonder the party has a jaded look.

But, as always, one amusing feature has been the SDLP’s inordinate pride in belonging to the Party of European Socialists, even though they aren’t really much of a fit there. So, turning to the broader scene, we may notice that the social democrats have done remarkably badly across most of the continent, whether in government or opposition. Why is this? Well, Denis MacShane has some ideas. He reckons that Europe’s social democrats have been more content to strike radical poses than deal with the hard questions of power, and are totally mired in anti-capitalism and anti-Americanism. In Denis’ view, European social democracy needs to be more pro-market, more pro-war and more pro-Israel. Only thus can the Europeans emulate the soaraway success of Gordon Brown’s New Labour. I don’t know about you, but that certainly sounds convincing to me.

What was perhaps more convincing was the explanation put forward by a German Christian Democrat, whose name escapes me, on the BBC coverage. On being asked why the centre-right parties were doing reasonably well and the centre-left badly, in a situation of economic crisis where the left might have been expected to be roaring ahead, he argued that the social democrats were putting forward the same programme as the right. This is especially clear in Germany, where the SPD have been Merkel’s junior coalition partners. It’s clear in the ideological sense in France – if the PS is simply putting forward sarkozysme with a human face, why bother with them when you can vote for Sarko himself? One may also note the Italian Democratic Party’s remarkable track record of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Britain was especially bad, of course, as was Hungary. Generally, it was the most thoroughly Blairised parties that did worst.

There’s a bit of a straw in the wind in terms of what the population would expect a party even nominally of the left to be doing. There were goodish returns for social democracy in Greece and Malta, where social democrats in opposition have managed to at least appear slightly combative. (The same may be said of Irish Labour – granted that Éamon Gilmore has been more than a bit vague about his own prescriptions, but he would give us to understand that he’s got a plan, and he’s a fairly plausible guy.) For a governing social democratic party that’s done well, I can only point you towards the Smer party in Slovakia, which still has a strong populist streak and which has been a pariah party inside the PES for coalescing with some boisterous nationalists of the type that would cause Caroline Lucas sleepless nights.

Some more evidence along these lines is that the further left, whether unreconstructed communist parties, French Trotskyists or Dutch Maoists, did reasonable business. In France, we see over 6% for the Front de Gauche and just under 5% for Postman Pat’s NPA. 7.5% for Die Linke in Germany, which is perfectly decent even if a little below what the polls were predicting. In Portugal, the Left Bloc and the Communist Party getting a combined 21%; a good solid 15% for the Czech Communists; the Greek left doing reasonably well; the famously fractious Italian left wouldn’t have slipped much had they managed to put up a single slate. And of course Joe’s victory in Dublin. I’ll have more to say separately about the British left, but will just say now that I appreciate Dave’s closing quip.

Not that any of these parties are seriously challenging for power, but what they have in common is that they offer some kind of systemic alternative. The abolition of capitalism isn’t yet a majority position by a long way, but a party standing on that ground can do pretty well under certain conditions, like putting down solid roots in working-class communities, trying to have a dialogue (not a monologue) with a mass audience, and not tearing itself apart over dopey factional disputes. In this connection, I’d also mention gains for the Greens, especially their spectacular performance in France. Daniel Cohn-Bendit may be an untrustworthy asshole, but he’s a past master at looking kinda sorta radical.

What do we make of New Labour, then? The performance in the Euros was of course atrocious. Fifteen percent is an absolute disgrace. Being beaten by UKIP? Sinking to sixth place in Cornwall, beneath the upstarts of Mebyon Kernow? Even in 1983 it would be unimaginable. But does this actually mean the Labour Party can be written off as a force?

I don’t think so, in electoral terms, although there are longer-term trends working against it. On the flip side, you have to consider that the turnout at the general election will be twice that for the Euros. Moreover, under the FPTP system you won’t see the small parties having much of an impact. Even the more substantial of these – the Greens, UKIP, the BNP – could at most hope for one or two seats, if any. The Greens have taken thirty years of hard slog to build up a reasonable number of credible candidates and critical mass in a handful of local bases, and are still a long way from being players at the general election. Other small parties have even less going for them – I like Nigel Farage personally, as opposed to agreeing with him politically, but you don’t need to go far beyond him to reach UKIP’s wingnut tendency, and again they won’t be serious players outside of a Euro-election that could be tailor-made for them.

And ultimately, big political parties with over a century of existence don’t lose their sociological base overnight. There are still very big numbers of Labour supporters out there, even if at the moment they are so pissed off as to be staying away in droves. There is a serious question as to how they can be reached, in a situation where Labour seem to have lost either the will or the ability to do so. Unfortunately, the fash are ahead of the left in this race.

Finally, there are some signs out there that maybe the general election won’t be as much a walkover for Lord Snooty as you might think. There’s a failure to advance in the Euros, only gaining relatively as the Labour vote collapsed. (Noticeable that Labour held up fairly well in London, which I would guess has something to do with the Boris factor.) Projections from the locals show a Tory majority of around 30, which is a long way from the 200 you’d get from a reading of the headline polls. There’s not much sign of the British electorate, as opposed to the London media, falling in love with Cameron. It’s just that the Labour collapse is likely to let him in by default.

Rud eile: on perusing this week’s offering from the World’s Worst Columnist, I am struck by Gail’s idea that Caroline Flint is some kind of feminist heroine. Given Gail’s strident Toryism, and her reliance in her column on slagging off other women, this is a bit rich. Then again, it’s no sillier than the last time Gail developed a massive girl-crush on a female politician.

Rud eile fós: Justin is in good form this week.

Durko’s big idea

Couple of rum developments worth remarking on regarding the smaller two of our four main parties. Firstly, the Official Unionists and their mooted re-establishment of their historic link with the Tories. This has been touted about regularly down the years, but it could actually happen. Lord Trimble is on the case, and Sir Reggie is said to have shown some interest.

But the project has run into some opposition in the shape of Chris McGimpsey, who has arrestingly warned that such a move would leave the working class without a voice. Gimpo, you see, is a leftwinger, at least in his own mind. He may in fact be the only leftwinger in the Unionist Party. And as such, he’s long been waging a one-man campaign to re-establish the Labour Unionism of the 1920s. I’m not sure that 1920s Labour Unionism can be revived, or even should be, but you have to salute the guy’s indefatigability.

Passing over to the SDLP, isn’t it remarkable how they seem to have rediscovered Humean post-nationalism? This has even involved bigging up the European Union as a bulwark of social Catholicism, which may have been the case fifty years ago but isn’t so apparent today.

More to the point is Mark Durkan’s big idea for the abolition of compulsory power-sharing. You can sort of see what Mark is getting at, in that even the Provos are starting to chafe at the DUP veto, and it must be tempting for the SDLP to cut their losses and go into opposition. It doesn’t seem to have done Alliance much harm.

But still, for a nationalist politician to be advocating majority rule, even tempered by a Bill of Rights, is a bit odd. After all, under the old Stormont everyone was equal before the law. You also had a Bill of Rights, namely Magna Carta. Of course, you also had the Special Powers Act…

What may concentrate Mark’s mind more is that back in the 1980s majority rule plus Bill of Rights was the policy of the Workers Party. And it really proved a vote-winner for them, didn’t it?

The inconvenience of democracy

Well, that’s us told. No less august an organ than the Grauniad saw fit, in its leader on the Lisbon referendum, to describe the Irish electorate as “a horde of Goths”. Saturday’s paper also contained opinion pieces from Fintan O’Toole and Colm Tóibín, of which there’s little to be said except to refer the reader to Des Fennell’s old book, Nice People and Rednecks. God knows why, but our elite seem to be perpetually surprised that there are more rednecks about than nice people.

We’ve also seen various European politicos holding forth, most notably Denis MacShane and Daniel Cohn-Bendit. Of this pair it can fairly be asked, could you possibly find a bigger pair of wankers to fight the EU’s corner? More seriously, their general point was that it’s unfair for 1% of the Union’s population to hold the other 99% hostage. Perhaps it’s escaped the attention of our progressive internationalists that the other 99% weren’t allowed a vote. It’s an odd situation where that tough old conservative, Czech president Václav Klaus, emerges as the champion of democracy. But perhaps it makes my point about liberal elitism.

But this really takes the biscuit. For those of you who aren’t regular readers of the Irish News, Tom Kelly is the paper’s premier purveyor of Humespeak. And there’s nothing more elitist than Humespeak. St John himself used to say that, as the unionists wouldn’t reform, the only thing for it was to appoint plenipotentiary commissioners to force them to behave. You got rather a lot of this during the peace process. Mark Durkan used to attack British direct rule ministers on the grounds that they had no democratic mandate in the North, which was true, and then bathetically go on to demand a government of technocrats and experts who had no mandate anywhere.

So, what of Kelly? Well, he has a theory and a solution regarding the No. His theory is that the Irish punters are so happy with the EU that they can’t be bothered getting off their arse to vote for the Lisbon Treaty. His solution is to rip up the Constitution. Not the EU Constitution, mind, but the Irish Constitution, with its pesky provision that the great unwashed get to have a say on matters as important as EU treaties. Here’s Kelly:

The reality is instead of just licking their wounds the government needs to address the root problem which is a constitution that is, in part, no longer fit for purpose.

This continued requirement for referendums is an anachronism, especially if voting is not made compulsory.

In a state the size of the Republic where voting is not mandatory but referendums are required on complex issues, manipulation by lobby groups from the extreme right and left can swing the vote.

Of course there are those who claim this would be a dissolution of our civil liberties but yet the Yes campaign supporters represent numbers way in excess of those who bothered to vote Yes or No in this recent campaign.

So, the proposition might have been lost, but according to the seasonally adjusted figures, Lisbon really had a majority. Shyeah. Actually, the whole column is replete with gems like this. He also holds forth on the usual characterisation of the Noes as a bunch of cranks:

Sinn Fein will benefit little from their efforts but at least they had the sense to keep the northern leadership away from this campaign. The rest of the rag-tag bunch of No campaigners would make great candidates for an Irish version of Big Brother.

And we have this jaw-dropping non sequitur:

For the government it is humiliating but for Fine Gael and Labour their pro-European credentials are severely tarnished.

For the left, Europe is always problematic as many members of the Labour movement are unenthusiastic about the European ideal – unless of course it is dominated by a hammer and sickle.

Proof if proof was needed that John Hume’s very sound European credentials were not via the imprimatur of the great socialist bloc in the EU.

Huh? Is Kelly trying to stake out a position as the SDLP’s answer to Jim Gibney? Apart from Kelly’s apparent delusion that Fine Gael is some sort of neo-Bolshevik party, wouldn’t it be terrible if Mark Durkan’s mates in the Party of European Socialists came across this sort of flapdoodle? Next time Mark goes to a grand international conference, people like Denis MacShane might be looking at him funny.

Yes, as so often where the EU is concerned, Brecht was ahead of the game with his quip about the government abolishing the people and electing a new one.

Police hunt trucker, monkey

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Following on from the discussion on yesterday’s Politics Show – and there is some good discussion of this at Slugger – a few more points are worth making about the big barney at Stormont over Margaret Ritchie defunding the UDA.

The first is the procedural question, which is what Peter “l’état, c’est moi” Robinson has been going hard on. This wasn’t immediately apparent due to the opaque way in which Robbo has made his complaint, but the operative part of St Andrew’s is the modified majority-rule provision which means a minister can’t go on a solo run in defiance of a majority decision of the Executive. But of course, the Procrastination Committee hasn’t made a decision in respect of the CTI, and doesn’t seem in a great hurry to. Not to mention that the advice from the Chuckle Brothers to Ritchie back in July seemed to suggest that the minister was on her own here. So, what we are left with is Robbo generating a great amount of hot air based on the assertion that he understood, after Ritchie had spoken to the Executive on this matter the previous week, that she would speak to the Executive again before announcing her decision. The Official Unionists don’t seem to remember it that way, but there you go.

Again, and this may conceivably run up against the ban on devolved ministers having sight of advice given to their direct rule predecessors, it seems to me that there should be an urgent investigation of whether Hain’s original contract was legal. The minister should bat that back to the DSO or explain why not. And if the contract was indeed illegal, then most of this procedural guff is neither here nor there.

Another thing that shouldn’t really need pointing out, but evidently does, is that the CTI is not a reserved but a devolved matter, and that Stormont has legislative powers. If the rules don’t allow the UDA to be defunded, then it’s perfectly possible for our elected representatives to change the rules.

Now, let’s look at the grubby politics involved, something that has seemed to go by the board. A lot of the heat in this situation, at least on the Provos’ part, has to do with the next Westminster election. This explains a lot about their reaction, and indeed why Ritchie got to be a minister in the first place rather than her party leader Mark Durkan, two things that have had some commentators scratching their heads.

Looking at the intra-nationalist fight in the next Westminster election, both PSF and the SDLP have a huge amount riding on this. PSF, following their disappointing showing in the south, will desperately want to maintain their forward momentum towards becoming the north’s monolithic Catholic party and, while stretching their lead over the SDLP in places like East Derry or North Antrim is all very well, there’s nothing like getting an additional MP, preferably at the SDLP’s expense. Likewise, the SDLP will have to prove its future viability, whether as an independent party or as the six-county section of Fianna Fáil.

This all points towards South Down as the cockpit constituency. We may reckon that Durkan is safe enough in Foyle for the time being. McDonnell is probably a dead man walking in South Belfast, but there isn’t a cat in hell’s chance of Maskey being the beneficiary. Demographic changes in North Belfast may be working in Gerry Kelly’s favour, but he’s a good decade off being within shouting distance. But in South Down, where the SDLP had a narrow lead of around 300 over PSF at the Stormont elections, there’s everything to play for.

Now, assuming the elderly Eddie McGrady finally retires, that means a hard-fought contest between Margaret Ritchie and Caitríona Ruane, which explains why the both of them are ministers. Things are also made a lot more explicable when you consider that, to tip South Down in their favour, PSF will need Ruane to conspicuously shine as a minister and Ritchie to conspicuously fail, while the SDLP will be looking for the opposite outcome. It’s the misfortune of the Stormont Shinners that defunding the UDA is an extremely popular proposition with your average nationalist voter. This is why they have to preface their procedural criticisms of Ritchie with “of course we want to defund the UDA as well”, but parliamentary procedure butters few parsnips on the doorstep, especially when you remember that they’ve been taking pot-shots at Ritchie over this for several months. Memo to Gerry: When you’re in a hole, stop digging. It may have been a smarter move to support scrapping the CTI.

But what is in this for the DUP, I’m still struggling to understand. Unless it’s just Robbo trying to establish himself as the Executive’s Sun King, which I suppose is plausible.

Update 23.10.07: I note the Executive has now come round to the idea of scrapping the CTI with the minimum possible delay. Perhaps they caught on that they were on a hiding to nothing with the public.

Margaret Ritchie versus the UDA, continued

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And the controversy over Margaret Ritchie’s action against the UDA rumbles on. Thanks to the Telegraph, we now have sight of the two legal opinions put before the minister prior to her statement. Senior Crown Counsel Bernard McCloskey writes that “If the minister were to make a funding withdrawal decision at this stage, this would be vulnerable to successful legal challenge.” On the other hand, the external advice from Brett Lockhart QC argues that “Although I accept that there is a real prospect of challenge… I am of the view that a decision taken on the basis of current developments can still be robustly defended.” You pays your money and you takes your choice, I suppose.

A couple of points are worth making about this. One is, as pointed out on Slugger, that the terms of reference for both opinions expressly excluded any consideration of Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. There is a reasonable possibility that under Section 75 the original contract entered into by Peter Hain may have been illegal, which wouldn’t be the first time an executive decision of Hain’s fell foul of the law.

Another point is that the vulnerability to legal challenge is based on the cornflake-box argument that, while the UDA may be in flagrant breach of the terms of the Conflict Transformation Initiative, no contractual breach has been demonstrated on the part of Farset Community Enterprises, which is administering the CTI. Well, we are dealing with fine distinctions here. It is true that Farset is not just the UDA with a grant – it’s a community development organisation of which the CTI is only a subdivision. But, given that the CTI employs Frankie Gallagher and Billy McQuiston, a defence of “nothing to do with the UDA, honest guv” would be pretty specious. (Of course that might still wash in the Belfast courts, which have a record of shocking leniency towards the UDA.) Besides, if the CTI was totally separate from the UDA, it wouldn’t exist in the first place.

Now, we turn to the ramifications in the Executive. It is striking that the DUP-PSF bloc on the Executive has been getting stuck into Margaret on procedural grounds, most notably for announcing her decision without getting the prior backing of the Executive, and all these rumblings about minutes and so on (I direct readers to the Beeb’s invaluable Mark Devenport) flow from that. But no minister has actually come out and defended the UDA, and I think it’s obvious that, whatever political motivations are driving the infighting at Stormont, ministers are very much aware that Margaret’s decision has been extremely popular with the punters. After all, our finance minister keeps telling us that resources are tight, which puts into perspective expensive community programmes that don’t seem to achieve much beyond providing salaries to UDA men, without any detectable impact on the UDA’s criminal activity.

So much of the sniping gets aimed at Margaret herself, and the comments from Robinson, Dodds and McGuinness show a barely concealed undercurrent of sexism – what is this little woman doing getting mixed up in serious politics? Actually, and I say this as someone with little affinity for the SDLP, to date Margaret has arguably been the best minister at Stormont. Not a great feat, but she wins points for being the only minister so far to take an unpopular decision and stick by it.

Consider this: On yesterday’s Nolan show, culture minister Edwin Poots (why does that always have me smiling?) was asked why it was a breach of discipline for Margaret to defund the UDA without prior approval from the Executive, when his statement ruling out the Acht Gaeilge had not had prior Executive approval either. “Ah,” said Pootsie, “but that wasn’t a final decision.” Well, that’s all right then. Likewise, Arlene Foster hasn’t made a final decision on the Causeway visitors’ centre. Conor Murphy has water charges under review, and is likely to keep them under review for as long as humanly possible. Caitríona Ruane has post-primary selection under review. And so on.

In view of all this, isn’t the Stormont “Executive” really a misnomer? Shouldn’t it really be called something like the Procrastination Committee?

Rud eile: Connoisseurs of Provo bluster may enjoy the spectacle of über-Grizzlyite Chris Gaskin talking out of his arse.

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