Category: Dissenting

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.



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 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.


False flag

The Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition has been established as part of commitments made under the Stormont House and Fresh Start Agreements.

Given experience, and the political background to the Commission, there must be deep reservations about any final Report; and more specifically the use of that Report beyond what any might imagine or intend.


Time enough…

breaking time

Back in January 2014 the DUP’s Trevor Clarke asked the Health Minister how much is annually paid to Trade Union officals. The Minister believed that within the Department and its arms length bodies the equivalent of 58 full time trade union officials were involved, at a total cost to the taxpayer estimated to be £1,840,540. The Minister said it was a spend being reviewed as he endeavoured to fund frontline services.

From information provided in an extensive FOI project the total cost to the taxpayer afforded to Trade Unions by the many levels of government administration in Northern Ireland is perhaps around £4.5 million. That doesn’t include agency or replacement in an essential frontline service. Nor is this a complete picture, with many public sector bodies reporting that they do not keep accurate records.

What arises from an overview of the data is that there is are no rules as to what constitutes facility time. There are two many estimates reported. Too often no records are kept at all. Facility time, it would seem, is what the Trade Unions say it is.

At a time when frontline services and budgets are under intense pressure, the taxpayer must ask if such a huge sum is justified, almost always increasing year on year. Surely, at the very least, a small service fee could be charged for collecting and forwarding members dues to the Union coffers. There is evidence of only three bodies doing this across the whole of the public sector – proving it is possible.

Trade Unions in Northern Ireland have a membership of around 242,000. Unions are not poor. In 2013 the total income of Unions based in Northern Ireland was £5.7million, spending £4.9million (an excess of £800,000). Income from Northern Ireland for all Unions (GB, NI, ROI) amounted to around £28.7 million. GB based Unions received £250 million more than they spent across the UK. Across these islands total Union income amounted to more than £1 billion. *

Facility time is justified if used responsibly. The scale of taxpayer contribution to Trade Union business in Northern suggests that closer monitoring is needed – you can’t make that judgement when records simply are not kept. A £4.5 million cost to the taxpayer also suggests that perhaps time is being spent beyond what is needed for that particular employer. Trade Unions can well afford to pay the cost of time spent on exclusively Union business.

Almost two years later it would be interesting to know how that Health Ministerial review was progressing.


* source NI Certification Officer for Trade Unions and Employers’ Associations Annual Report 2013-2014.