The numbers matter

Recent days has seen analysis of the recent Local Elections in Northern Ireland almost exclusively in outlined in terms of percentages. Statistical summaries. These focused on percentage shares of the vote, and the number of seats gained/lost by the parties.

The general view is that this was an election where the centre ‘broke through’. This was the ‘Other’ face of Northern Ireland politics.

Looking at the numbers and that isn’t quite the whole story.

First the percentages show that Alliance did indeed raise its vote significantly.

Alliance has built on its 2017 Assembly vote, and added some – possibly also because it stood candidates in more areas than in 2014 building off the 2017 experience. It also of course had the emotional uptick off the murder of Lyra McKee where the big two parties were seen as a stumbling block to the return of Stormont – even though on the ground there has been little obvious public groundswell for Stormont’s return!

More widely, it might be a general ‘plague on your houses’ towards larger political parties – echoing the national sense from the returns at Local Elections in England. That would also explain the return of ‘other’ votes, an increase for Greens and People Before Profit (PBP); though it should be noted fewer other parties were standing this time, although more independents broke through.

Although Alliance gained 35,000 votes on its 2014 performance at local government level, accounting for its significant increase in councillors, it increased 5,000 votes from its 2017 Assembly performance.

Having said all that it should be noted that there have been other shifts.

Alliance votes shifted to the East of Belfast. The rise in seats is to some extent explained by the concentration of Alliance support (East Belfast and elsewhere) which both raises quota and, where there is strength, delivers for a Party. At the same time it is not a massive surge in vote compared to the 2017 Assembly election.

Sinn Fein similarly gains. Its concentration to the West of Belfast means it can deliver a solid performance, even if it loses a seat here and there – Sinn Fein vote management is widely considered to be machine-like.

Better vote management in STV elections is something Unionist Parties needs to improve upon – particularly in the forthcoming European poll. Anecdotally, too many candidates sent election literature entreating a first preference into areas where other candidates were better known. The impact is illustrated by the final seat tally for the main parties.

This isn’t a reflection of how many votes each Party gained.

Despite performing significantly better in 2019 than in 2014, adding around 20,000 votes, the DUP still lost 7 seats. Sinn Fein did better also, though by only 5,000 votes and with about the same number of votes as Martina Anderson gained in the European Election on the same day in 2014. The DUP will be happier with that its increase going into the European election end of the month though disappointed that it still failed to increase its overall number of seats.

The increase in votes from 2014 to 2019 for the DUP and Alliance (55,000) account for almost all the increase in overall turnout of around 60,000 votes.

The UUP lost only around 5,000 votes from the 2014 election, and the SDLP lost about 2,500, they losing 13 and 7 seats respectively. That those 20 seats are almost two thirds of the gain in seats by Alliance doesn’t really add up given that Alliance gained 35,000 votes. What this does suggest is that both the SDLP and the UUP are losing in pockets of residual support where the Alliance vote is strongest anyway. Both continue to poll consistently, but with shrinking bases and fewer active members to maintain a local presence they both struggle to cut through in contrast, and have no answer to any emotional surge seeking a new voice.

The vote for candidates not in the big five also returned to 2016 Assembly levels – around 100,000 – following the 2017 concentration around the big two Parties squeezing alternative voices.

On to the European Elections on the 23rd May. With £5,000 the deposit for a Province wide campaign, we will once again see a marked reduction in independents and smaller parties battling for a seat. The five main parties will of course be there. We know too that Jim Allister of the TUV will be standing, and that based on the last vote in 2014 he will gain a considerable personal vote. If trust is an issue, people trust Jim Allister, even if they don’t like the TUV platform.

There’s always one or two on the fringe who will find the wherewithal to stand:

Nada, nada.

Back to reality, and the local elections probably mean that the DUP and Sinn Fein will be safe enough in having Diane Dodds and Martina Anderson re-elected. It will be interesting to see if Martina Anderson will exceed her previous tally, given that this was about the same as the most recent overall Sinn Fein vote at local elections.

The DUP will hope that the recent increase in overall vote since 2014 has some residual gain that will assure Diane Dodds re-election; and sooner than the seventh count, in 2014.

That Diane Dodds wasn’t elected until the seventh count was of course due to the transfer process. The recent local election overall performance was better than the poll in 2014, on same day as the Europe poll, which suggests that first preference votes for the DUP should assure one of the three MEPs elected. Though assumptions at present, however reasonable they seem, are brave.

The big battle will be for the third seat.

*all Local Election numbers are based on turnout x percentage vote recorded. Haven’t been able to find a list of actual vote numbers for each Party overall, so for now numbers are approximate though in the ballpark. 

There isn’t much room for ‘other’ to break in. The electoral offer of candidates isn’t so different to what it was in 2014.

Danny Kennedy might hope that his ‘Remainer but Leaver‘ policy approach might shore up the UUP vote – not clear how, not really clear where current Party policy stands. In respect of transfers, this doesn’t seem like a winning strategy. Both Jim Allister and Henry Reilly gained over 100,000 votes last time, clearly some from the DUP and some from the UUP (worst ever UUP result). Danny Kennedy, a well known and highly respected Unionist, will have to poll well to keep ahead of Jim Allister if that Eurosceptic vote is still there and as angry as the Brexit Party seems to be demonstrating in the rest of the UK. Danny will also have to be clearer, much clearer in messaging than his Party, to ensure transfers should Jim Allister be eliminated first – and ‘Remainer but Leaver’ risks no transfer at all from many of those voters. Anyone Unionist not willing to transfer on that basis would be wrong, even if justified. If ever there is a time for unionists to vote 1,2,3 for Unionist candidates, this is the election to be wise.

The battle between Naomi Long and Colum Eastwood, for first preferences and all important transfers, will be interesting; two candidates for whom there is little difference on Europe. Tack too hard on all-Ireland and transfers from unionist Alliance voters may go elsewhere for Colum. Tack too hard towards nationalist SDLP voters and those same unionist voters may not vote Alliance at all. Both will be hoping that the ‘other’ voters, so overwhelmingly unionist at the last European election will be more centrist and perhaps that same local Government surge will take one high enough to stay in the count long enough to see off the other.

However. That surge in turnout for the Local Government elections was adsorbed predominately by Alliance and the DUP, with far lesser gains for Sinn Fein, UUP and SDLP respectively.

Meanwhile, there are talks at Stormont on re-establishing a regional Assembly. For the two big parties, this coming election needs to be fought firmly, but with a level of confidence in the upcoming vote there will be no need for a deeply acrimonious campaign from either – though for Sinn Fein the local election vote will be worrying should there be an Assembly election in advance of a new Assembly.

The battle will be among the Parties who most preach ‘getalongerism’. We’ll see how well that stands up over the coming few weeks.

Unless there is a far greater turnout than on 2 May, the third seat is wide open and the count will be absolutely fascinating as transfers reveal voters’ lesser preferences.



Think Local 

Enough of Brexit. Avoid thinking about the UK participating in European Elections towards the end of May – might or might not happen.

What do we know with certainty? Only thing we know for certain in UK politics at this moment is that there will be Local Elections, to be held on 2 May, for 270 local councils and six directly elected Mayors in England, and the 11 local councils in Northern Ireland.

It is highly likely national politics will dominate commentary on the local elections in England, particularly on the results and what they will be believed to mean (in the Brexit context, no doubt).

The greatest focus will most probably fall on the Conservative Party, where there is not great expectation of a good election, based on reports to date. There is every possibility that its usual voters simply won’t turn out.

Labour is most likely to make the biggest gains on the night, relatively speaking.

There might be a story around a good performance by the LibDems, having a political space to itself on the committed Remain front (can’t entirely escape Brexit) and always able to make a good local campaign. UKIP, the new Brexit Party and (if it is registered in time) the new Change UK, either have a lack of infrastructure for local campaigning or just aren’t interested in Councils at this stage so won’t make a big impact on the 2nd.

Northern Ireland has a different election landscape. There has been no local Assembly for the past two years, with a blame game being played as to who is responsible for this state of affairs.

Karen Bradley the Secretary of State is being blamed for no movement on the return of the Assembly and no satisfactory replacement in the meantime. Meanwhile, everyone blames everyone else on why there has not been progress on getting the Assembly back up and running.

Brexit features, of course; though wasn’t a reason put forward at time of Stormont’s collapse, and isn’t an impediment to the Assembly returning. Indeed, with Sinn Fein absence from Westminster, the closed Assembly denies it the one chance of a serious voice in the Brexit debate for Northern Ireland, leaving the sole voice at Westminster as the DUP (though Lady Herman keeps herself noticed from time to time).

Local Elections therefore present the only opportunity to vote and elect local representatives who will actually sit and address (a limited number of) local issues.

Local Government in Northern Ireland is very limited. In England, public health, housing, transport and social services all fall under local government. Even with the Reform of Public Administration saw the numbers of Councils fall from 26 to 11 in 2014m in Northern Ireland, only responsibility of car-parks and local planning (the political hot potato of local administration) were added to the existing delivery of dog catching, burials, recreational services and waste disposal services. A lot of time continues to be spent arguing in the Council Chamber about matters over which local Councils have no actual control – statues, “rights” etc.

Not that that stops the Chief Executives and other Council officials in Northern Ireland being well-paid relative their counterparts in England who hold considerably greater responsibilities for services including housing, public health, and social care.

2014 was the first for the 11 rather than 26 local councils. All the political Parties were in the same boat of not quite knowing how to best manage the (STV – pr) vote. Also, the 2014 election was on the same day as the last (though maybe not the final) European Election, which for Northern Ireland is a single constituency (STV –pr) vote.

It is valuable by way of background to take a look at the 2014 elections alongside each other, and the subsequent 2016/2017 elections’ results, before anticipating the 2019 vote.

First thing to note in 2014 is the marked difference between the personality vote within the European vote compared to the Local vote. That is most striking in the ‘other‘ category, where Jim Alister polled 12.1% for EU, but the TUV only 2% locally. UKIP similarly polled 3.9% (Henry Reilly) for EU and 0.4% locally. Even with the two major Unionist Parties the votes were notable by the difference in votes: the DUP had 20.9% in EU vote, but 23.1% locally. The UUP polled significantly stronger locally 16.7% than Europe at 13.3%.

The difference between EU and local elections with the Alliance, SDLP and Sinn Fein were less marked, perhaps reflecting the greater volatility within Unionism and a more engaged political demos – no matter what is said to the contrary. Though again, to a lesser extent the SDLP did better locally in percentage terms than with the EU vote, Sinn Fein marginally worse.

In both the Assembly and Westminster elections in 2017 the driving force was around who gained most votes – DUP or Sinn Fein – which squeezed the other parties and killed any political thinking beyond a numbers game; though until the Westminster vote Party shares were largely holding firm.

2014 showed that within Unionism there remains a strong grass-roots affinity and loyalty to local personalities, which benefited the UUP greatly. At the same time, when the opportunity arose, voters were not averse to snubbing the Party that fancies itself as the primary voice for Unionism. The UUP and TUV candidates collectively voted 25.4% to the DUP’s 20.9% in Europe.

Of course, move on to 2017 and the electoral map and outcomes are very different. The DUP and Sinn Fein steam forward in the two 2017 elections, and the other parties fight to stand still or not lose too much ground to the big two.

In 2019 the local council elections are stand-alone. What are the points to look for in the results?

Not even going to pretend this blog has a clue where nationalism/Republicans are at the moment on the political spectrum – collectively off chasing Brexit unicorns. Nothing from the pronouncements of either the SDLP or Sinn Fein over the past two years would seem to be at all relevant to what an electorate would expect in respect of local service delivery.  The usual big-up of Sinn Fein prospects are to be found in usual places.

Sinn Fein will want to hang on to the 2017 Westminster vote, but previous elections suggest that could be a challenge in itself.

Had it not been for the realignment with Fianna Fail earlier in 2019 the SDLP might have been expected that its strong local teams (and the SDLP retains pockets of a strong support base) might have performed better than anticipated from the more recent 2017 indications. However, it isn’t clear from a distance whether a vote for the SDLP is a vote for a Fianna Fail, Fine Gael or Irish Labour (Workers Party lite) version of the SDLP. Some prominent elected members have stood down, for example Tim Attwood in West Belfast. And electoral rules have bizarrely barred the widely respected Maria Cahill from standing in Lisburn & Castlereagh.

Hard to believe that the muddle in the SDLP, preventing it clearly projecting what it stands for, won’t benefit Sinn Fein which has in any case a far more organised campaign machine.

For all the opprobrium that descends on the DUP from just about everyone, its stand on Brexit, and on most local issues, is not as dreadful to most Unionist voters as many would want it to be. Arguably, on the Irish Language Act the UUP takes a harder stance; and while on “rights” issues the UUP is more flexible (on social issues, where policy is a matter of conscience), the Unionist electorate would regard most rights being claimed as ‘political’ and therefore something to be argued and won or lost at Stormont. Political rights are fine and dandy, but they won’t solve hospital waiting lists.

Westminster’s Easter recess will provide a little space for the DUP to bring back attention on its local council candidates, rather than on its MPs and Brexit.

The DUP navigates the volatility of the Unionist electorate with extreme caution. It has the advantage, while the Assembly has been on hold, to have had a Confidence & Supply arrangement with the Conservative Party. This has delivered on additional funding to local departmental budgets and in specific areas (eg broadband), and this ‘win’ is likely to be punted hard to the electorate.

While the success in achieving the additional funding doesn’t have to be shared with any other Party, at the same time not having an Executive means the Party is unable claim implementation – even so, it is still a message not to be wasted.

Being in the game at Westminster, with lots of TV time, will impress the Unionist voter generally – whether or not it translates to votes. That may well be important in transfers where residual distrust of the DUP in the past may be softening – evidence being the loan of votes in the 2017 Westminster Election.

Like all of the main Parties, the DUP knows it has to keep focus on delivery (from wherever it comes), and local councillors selected are often active and connected to social networks locally.

All that said, the 2017 DUP Westminster `Vote was gained by hoovering up most ‘other’ Unionist votes along with a share of UUP votes that decided to make a point where the UUP candidate had no realistic chance of winning anyway – so no perceived political loss. That is less the case where the vote is not first past the post (FPTP), and were local loyalties are back in play. Even so the number of DUP Councillors is likely to increase despite not reaching 36% of the electorate – a big stretch in local elections, a massive change in electoral base if that happens.

Council elections are a good indicator of reach and reaction to wider issues, and the DUP will be looking closely at outcomes towards any new Assembly, which must surely require new elections at some point given the current rate of steps.

Comment has been made that there are noticeably more younger faces to be seen on election posters – a key demographic the DUP is often accused of ignoring – though overall it is difficult to spot much change in that regard with any of the local Parties.

The UUP has a few new faces – even if some have a familiar name.

That said, the Party probably relies too much on its tried and trusted stable of candidates. Voter loyalty, and with the older voter more likely to head to the polling booth, will possibly bring an element of success for the UUP.  Standing still on 2014 would be quite an achievement, and is potentially doable.

However, not having made much of managing expectations or even putting much of a concerted media challenge to the DUP, an reasonably good election for the UUP will be wasted. True, any definition of a good election would not necessarily be anything other than voters going with the ‘old reliables’, but a more savvy political Party would have spotted the potential and made a political calculation and plan to take advantage of a bit of good news. Maybe it has a plan, but there is no obvious planning or direction evident through media presence or performance at present .

As for all the rest (some charts here)? Alliance is standing much the same number as last time, though heading into more areas to perhaps keep the percentage vote on the upper end of what might be expected – perhaps hoping for a Brexit bounce as consistent Brexit Remainers?

The Greens, People Before Profit on the left, and the new conservative republican Aoutu are hoping to break through here and there. The PUP has significantly reduced its electoral ambitions.

There are a far fewer ‘other’ from Parties taking a chance in 2019, down by over two thirds, perhaps reflecting just how difficult it is to break through when the political conversation is little beyond Brexit and the political space is dominated by two largest Parties. Though conversely, the number of independent candidates has arisen, having perhaps a more assured local personal profile or having more hope than experience.

What might be the story post-election in respect of the Local Government vote? An improvement in the number of seats for the DUP and Sinn Fein will have the usual follow through of how each is best able to protect the Union or bring about Irish Unity – it can’t be both, and isn’t likely to be either. Percentage votes will also be scrutinised in a binary manner, though will probably see a dip for the DUP and possibly also SF which has less far to fall from Westminster 2017. The rest will make the best of whatever the vote shows by seats, votes cast, or percentage comparison. The UUP and SDLP outcomes will possibly be considered better than expected, though expectations are exceptionally low.

In other words, little is likely to substantially change. More of the same.

Council officers will keep the services running, and the demand for ever higher rates will keep being made without much scrutiny by way of recourse to an analysis of efficiency or purpose across the actual spend. Meanwhile the Council Chamber will be used for every opportunity to poke the other side by promoting policy un-related to service delivery or motions on subjects unconnected to Council responsibilities – Sinn Fein is particularly adept in this regard.

Of course the forthcoming Council Elections may be simply a prelude to a European Election at the end of the May which, again being STV-PR, would be brutally fought. The Council Elections will be an indication of how brutal that could get. Brexit is never that far away.







Border control

“Let’s get some perspective on that 0.001% risk to the EU single market collapsing in chaos.”

A while back, in January, on the Clare Byrne show a guest who was ex Irish Military made a not often heard point on the Irish Border that so obsesses the EU and virtually every commentator on Brexit.

His point that there were three types of border.

An open border – pretty much the CTA for people between UK and Republic of Ireland. For goods, generally within Schenghen, or between States in the USA. That doesn’t mean no differences, simply that those differences are not especially managed at or on a border crossing.

A controlled border – this can be light or not so light. For example anyone from the UK or Republic of Ireland still has to go through passport control when entering a Schenghen member country, and on return to point of departure. While borders are always territorial they can be located anywhere – the USA has pre-Authorisation Immigration at Dublin Airport, with passengers entering USA once past the US Border officials. Controlled borders require visas or visa waivers for people, and tariffs and checks that are paperless or physical in triplicate for goods; and for services there are sometimes regulations and/or controls on operation. These are all the stuff of international law and treaties, and of international disputes.

A closed border – was the Berlin Wall, and many other States whose borders were to keep their own people in as much as others’ out. These were usually highly militarised and with physical barriers. There was some possibility to cross such borders – an exchange of West Marks to East Marks and a tram ride for the adventurous. Thankfully the world has fewer to these than were common even 40 years ago. The line between North and South Korea is perhaps the only obvious such border that might spring to mind today. The chaos of Syria might make that a border few wish to cross, more from confusion and ill-defined order than any physical barrier, but the problem arises perhaps that it is not a closed border in any sense. That said a closed border is just that – closed to crossing.

Where on the point between the description of open border and closed border do we put the mark on the map between the UK and the Republic of Ireland over the past half-century? Undeniably the current land border is fairly open and is in considerable contrast to the border during the height of the IRA terrorist years, and moving through ports and airports is completed with considerably more ease.

Yet even at the height of the IRA terror there was never a completely closed border.

While effort was made to close some minor roads, this was done to endeavour to reduce the ability of the IRA to use such roads to escape into the Republic which always seemed rather ambivalent towards extraditing IRA suspects back North.

The recent images conjured up by those supporting Remain in the Brexit debate miss (deliberately or indifferently) the point that the few watch towers along the border were there to monitor and protect the largely on-going and uninterrupted flow of traffic of people and goods crossing the border.

With the terror largely gone it is hard to actually understand why anyone would assert the idea that army watchtowers would be back along the border anytime soon.

Fact is the border will remain fairly open, despite Brexit.

The Common Travel Area encompassing the British Isles means that for people travelling North, South, East and West across our islands, travel will be as open as ever: the same travel inconveniences will apply when entering the Schengen area within the EU; not that much really. For people there will still be an open border.

What is being discussed with Brexit around Single Customs Area and Customs Union is the degree of control required to manage the difference in trade and regulatory policy between two jurisdictions the UK and EU. It is a matter of trade management.

Again, the image conjured by Remain supporters is a memory of long queues of lorries and vehicles at customs posts all along the border – and again conveniently often conflated, or inflated, due to added security checking at key transit points.

Even the most recent of these memories would have been at a time when mobile phones were still bricks attached by cable to a breeze-block of a battery. Computerisation, IT, electronic processing has happened since that time. It has transformed the international management of trade. Only a very small percentage of non-EU trade is subject to a physical check.

99% of customs declarations for non-EU trade are currently received electronically by HMRC. These do not necessarily require the presence of border guards and checkpoints, nor should it necessarily mean technology or cameras at the border.

Technological solutions away from the border, such as electronic pre-clearance, should be under serious consideration going forward. Other goods checking likely at border would be a variety of safety and security checks, from verifying the safety of the supply chain, to checking regulatory compliance, and conducting veterinary, phytosanitary or quarantine controls. While technology is not entirely a solution, controls are less necessary when both countries agree as partners to recognise each other’s standards, regulations and security enforcement with goodwill; and even then, checking is not essential at the actual border.

With all but a tiny proportion of trade subjected to physical checks it is difficult to understand exactly why scaling up to cope with EU27/UK trade would be so challenging. The Irish Revenue Commission was once of the same opinion:

“To put this in some context, Revenue processes around 1.4 million customs declarations every year. Of these 53% are imports and 47% exports, and around 57,000 transit arrangements. Exports are generally checked only for safety and security reasons and in 2016, less than 0.5% of export declarations were checked. Customs checks mainly apply to imports. In 2016, 6% of import declarations were checked and less than 2% were physically checked. The vast majority of these checks were carried out in approved warehouses and other premises, with a very small number at a port or airport.”

“The low level of import checks is the result of pre-authorisation of traders, advance lodgement of declarations and an extensive system of post-clearance checks, including customs audit, which are carried out at traders’ premises. “Authorised Economic Operators” (AEOs) have a special status in the system and under agreed protocols are allowed to operate greatly simplified customs procedures. There are currently 133 AEOs and these account for 82% of all imports and 89% of exports. It will be very important that the bulk of trade continues to be through AEOs after Brexit.”

All of this is probably the foundation of the recent NI Affairs Committee Report suggesting technology was possible in due course.

Not that it hasn’t been said before.

An important point there, that we broadly still use seventeenth century ideas to collect tariffs of just £3.5bn while the British Revenue collects £125bn in VAT receipts, largely on self-assessment. That would be £3.5bn of tariffs on £352bn of non-EU world imports in goods and services to the UK: which is about 1%. Total Irish imports in 2018 €90bn, of which Northern ireland represented just €1.4bn or just about 1.5%. Total imports to EU28 in 2108 equalled €1,977.5bn. If we deduct UK imports from the EU28 figure (using £=€ for ease, and for making the point it hardly makes a difference), that means world imports to EU27 at €1,625bn, of which the NI import figure will represent just 0.001% of EU importsThis is the scale of the threat to the EU single market without the ‘backstop arrangements’?

Starting from a point where there isn’t any difference in regulatory standards etc between the UK and EU27, change could be managed gradually. And proportionally, in respect of the volume of trade North/South on the island of Ireland over that ‘land’ border, the EU single market is not going to be brought to its knees by what amounts to a box of oranges, except in absolutist irredentist terms.

There is a desperate need to get back to practicalities and a sensible look at the issue of managing borders, technology, and what it takes to live and trade in the real world and not in the legally framed utopia that the EU demands for itself. Without the backstop in the DWA, let’s get some perspective on the prospect of that 0.001% risk to the EU single market collapsing in chaos. The EU has far more pressing issues that could precipitate a crisis.

The EU called initial UK proposals on trade management ‘magical thinking’, and then used the same magical thinking to suggest a border down the Irish Sea. When Theresa May brought forward the idea of the Facilitated Customs Arrangement (FCA), which included elements of proposals around maximum facilitation of customs, such as use of automation, streamlined procedures and simplified customs declarations, Michel Barnier’s response was pretty unequivocal:

The EU cannot—and will not—delegate the application of its customs policy and rules, VAT and excise duty collection to a non-member, who would not be subject to the EU’s governance structures.”

We now have in the Withdrawal Agreement “the backstop” that would allow for a process to operate not ‘subject’ to the UK’s governance structures. That does not even begin to look at the constitutional issues brought about by the backstop, best summarized by Dominic Raab following his resignation as Brexit Secretary:

“The Cabinet was told that Northern Ireland will be treated as a third country for regulatory purposes. I don’t think that’s consistent with keeping the union together.”

Just as the EU is a political project, which over-rides all else, so the EU has conducted negotiations with a view to that political project. The UK has seen it, still, in transactional terms. The twain doesn’t really meet.

It is absurd for people to suggest that the Government is pursing a policy of ‘no-deal’. Seriously, the problem is not that it seeks no-deal, but that May’s Draft Withdrawal Agreement has such fatal flaws that it is broadly unpalatable to just about everyone.

In the UK the DWA threatens trust in politics. 

More generally, the DWA is not regarded as a conclusion to negotiation that is built on goodwill, or trust. Mutual interest is based on trust as well as outcome. The backstop is based on a lack of trust – an insurance policy sounds better, but scarcely hides the Irish Government return to centuries of animus towards perfidious Albion. So much for the value of 20 years of the Good Friday Agreement – its East West Strand 3 brought to nothing by resurgent Irish shibboleths.

As Paul Goodman outlines in his Conservative Home article.

“Downing Street suggests that a consequence of the deal being passed as it stands is that the Government would then be able to move on – to deal with childcare, housing, jobs, the NHS and other issues close to the heart of so many voters.  But the effect of the deal going through would be the very opposite.  For trade talks would wake issues from their uneasy sleep that voters thought had been put to bed: fishing, market access, bits of Chequers, migration numbers and, yes, the backstop.  Brexit would roll on in its all-consuming way.”

Paul concludes:

“To vary some words once said by Keith Joseph, Brexit is not enough.  It must walk hand in and with trust.  If tomorrow’s vote takes place, it won’t primarily be about Theresa May’s future, much as some seem to think otherwise.  At its core will be the issue of trust in politics.  This will shrink further if the Commons passes a deal that the Government itself has indicated now needs a sweeping overhaul.”

The only way to bring clarity, quickly, is to leave on March 29thand rebuild. The last thing the DWA or an Extension to A50 will bring is ‘certainty’ no matter how long Brexit is delayed.

It is said that those who voted leave didn’t vote for ‘no-deal’ nor to be poorer – based on various predictions of how future economic growth might be affected. True. Perhaps. However, given the economic Armageddon that was predicted for the morning after a Leave vote – emergency budget anyone – it would have to be at least as bad to convince a public that is already distrustful of politicians that ‘no deal’ isn’t such a bad choice.


Had only just published the post above, and this appeared…. magical French thinking:

You can read the story here.

But of course, none of this could ever possibly work to monitor the tiny quantities of agricultural products and construction materials that cross the Irish border…” H/T @GuidoFawkes


The electorate seems ungrateful. Political leaders embracing the mainstream political presumptions of the later part of the 20th Century seem less sure of themselves beyond the set-piece photo-ops. 

Trump has been a shock to the American system, but a shock that was some time in coming and not altogether impossible even if a little unexpected. Everyone could see it, few believed it. Brexit too, in the UK. 


The Best of Both Worlds?

It was with a complete lack of irony that Sinn Fein’s Martina Anderson MEP supported remaining because the EU brought peace to Europe. This was said at a panel event in Coleraine during the 2016 Referendum on EU membership. Seriously.

What did the murderous gang of thugs, the IRA, do for peace in Europe?

Sadly, one example among many.

And it could have been more.


The Magical Mystery Brexit.

There’s been a Brexit post planned for ages, but things seem to change and each piece in time seems no longer relevant. So . . . time for a recap and quick look at where we are, which might seem not that much further on . . . 

There are a sequence of events that create a mystery in the whole Brexit process to date, and is important to solve going forward. In January 2017 the Lancaster House speech set out what sort of trade and wider relationships the UK might have with the EU and the world.


Review, refresh, re-engage.

The outcry over the attendance of Jamie Bryson at the House of Commons Northern Ireland Select Committee (NIAC) misses the point. This is a hearing as part of the Committee’s look at “Devolution and democracy in Northern Ireland – dealing with the deficit.” in Northern Ireland.

The NIAC look at “dealing with the deficit” in Northern Ireland has most probably been considered timely given the seemingly on-going impasse in discussions through 2017 (and into 2018) towards restoring devolution: or not, as at present. Presumptive or with great foresight, the Review now seems of greater interest in looking forward – notwithstanding the attendance of Mr Bryson and the subsequent Alliance Party hissy fit in that regard.


Playing with fire

Over on This Union Graham Gudgin makes the case that there is room for a sensible outcome from UK/EU negotiations, including agreement arrangements with respect to the Irish border.

That is not the place where Leo Varadkar and his Government seem to be right now.

In this week’s Spectator, James Forsyth calls out the dangerous gamble that is the Irish Government’s most recent position, within a wider and clear-headed report of where the UK / EU negotiations stand at present.


More than words

Over the summer months, while things were/weren’t intense/deadlocked up on Stormont Hill, the News Letter published a series of letters and responses that provided an interesting distraction from an otherwise dull news agenda.

A little patience is required to run through the correspondence the series of letters between UUP and Alliance Party Councillors and MLAs; the subject matter ranging from bonfires to blitz, and of course an Irish language Act. What is interesting is the nature of the Alliance proposition across the points raised.


Irish nationalism’s self-regarding single certainty.

United Ireland, inevitability and Brexit.

This long read is available as a PDF download.

In his excellent study of Ideology and the Irish Question, Paul Bew quoted a Ballymoney Free Press editorial of May 1912 at the height of the Irish Home Rule crisis. ‘The statement of Unionist Ulster’, it announced, ‘is that it merely wants to be let alone’. Unfortunately, ‘since Satan entered the Garden of Eden good people will not be let alone’.

This editorial captured a universal truth of Ulster Unionism – the desire to be ‘let alone’ – a truth with ambivalent consequences.