Category: General

It’s complicated

As Hilary Clinton learned, winning the popular vote does not necessarily provide the keys to power.

In polling terms Sinn Fein has often touched on joining Fine Gael and Fianna Fail as being one of the big political Parties in the Irish Republic. At around 24% of the vote in the recent election its claim of having a popular mandate being in Government is a stretch, but if it were any other Party it might be more palatable as a coalition partner.

There are three good reasons why that isn’t the case politically, and there is a range of economic issues that Sinn Fein in any way part of Government that make it wholly unsuited:

  • it has a poor record in Government,
  • it has not proven to be a reliable partner in Government,
  • and then there is the IRA;
  • and the economics of the Irish economy will find no solutions in a Chavez-inspired manifesto.

Sin Fein has a poor record in Government

First, its record of Government is poor. True, it hasn’t been in charge of a sovereign Government before, but they have been more or less part of the power-sharing structures in Northern Ireland since 1998, and as one of the two big Parties driving that process since 2007.

In respect of bold or ‘radical’ decisions the record has been one of poor performance and when big challenges arose the response was mostly bold rhetoric and then pass the buck – Welfare Reform post 2010 was returned to Westminster to allow Sinn Fein to blame the Tories and austerity, but more importantly to enable those reforms to happen. The current Finance Minister when last in the Executive wasn’t exactly on top of proper procedure – and the Party no better in his defence.

Sinn Fein has a tendency to confrontation, not competence.

Second, demonstrative confrontation rather than demonstrating competence doesn’t lend itself to being a reliable partner to deliver stable Government. That has been pattern in Northern Ireland where there has been a sequence of Sinn Fein calling crisis, halting the institutions and then negotiating to return with some claim or other of progress. The most recent return looks barely stable. Although the ostensible justification for bringing down the Stormont Administration was around questions over the local version of a national Renewable Heating Incentive Scheme, the decision which emanated from the Felons Club in West Belfast was to bring the institutions down because it was not delivering progress to Republican domination desired by the ‘base’.

Sinn Fein has an elephant in the backroom.

Third, that point about the Felons Club. Probably underlying the deepest concern of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail is the question of ‘who runs Sinn Fein’. During the election references were made to ‘shadowy figures’. The relationship to the IRA, of which Sinn Fein is the political personification, lies in the doctrinaire nature of republican mythology.

Following the Irish Civil War in 1922, Sinn Fein continued to reject the legitimacy of the Irish ‘Free State’, believed itself to the one true Government of Ireland and declared itself ‘abstentionist’, and on that point Eamon de Valera created Fianna Fail as anti-Abstentionist. Sinn Fein disappeared as a political force and the IRA continued with violent outbursts from time to time.

While Sinn Fein has re-emerged in the 1980s as a political force, at first to underscore support for the Maze Hunger Strike, its move to end its abstentionist policy in Ireland was never a rejection of armed struggle. The abstentionist policy remains for Westminster, even though it puts forward candidates and has currently 7 Members of Party who do not take their seats in the House of Commons.

In 2018 an official report based on PSNI and Security Services assessment, confirmed in this past week to the BBC Radio Ulster Nolan Show, stated that the structures of the IRA remained in existence which would mean that Sinn Fein remains symbiotically adjoined to the IRA. The report also said that ‘The Executive’ within these structures (for which many read IRA Army Council) was committed to exclusively peaceful means. That still doesn’t explain why it exists at all. Nor does it answer whether those on this ‘Executive’ might be described under the category of ‘good Republican’ used by Gerry Adams.  A review of the Special Criminal Court is a Sinn Fein manifesto commitment. 

No enthusiasm for Sinn Fein as a coalition partner.

Hardly surprising then that both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail have each expressed little willingness to give Sinn Fein access to the reins of power as a coalition partner. Sinn Fein has not proved itself competent in decision making in Government, and it is unreliable and prone to fermenting confrontation rather than building trust with its partners. When all is said and done, Sinn Fein decision-making is at best described as ‘opaque’; far from answering to the many of the electorate, there is a sense that it answers only to a very few. It may believe itself (by Republican right) to be the heirs of the first Republic and absolutely, undeniably, the true Government of Ireland, but this is 2020 not 1920.

‘Themselves alone’ doesn’t add up.

The difficulty for Sinn Fein in building a coalition around itself alone to lead and form a ‘left-wing’ Government is that the numbers don’t add up. Sinn Fein may have gained most votes (24.5%) but even after SF transfers (in this STV proportional representation election) largely going to ‘left’ candidates the most seats a coalition of the willing left is 66 – fourteen short of a basic majority.

Small parties need to be careful of any coalition. Some only came into the Dail off the back of SF transfers. Had Sinn Fein stood more candidates in many (multi-member constituency) seats, it would mean fewer gains for some of those smaller parties or independents. Strengthening Sinn Fein as a party of Government means those smaller Parties risk reducing their own appeal at the next election, and there is every good reason for Sinn Fein to assure another election sooner rather than later.

The other point of Sinn Fein finding only 66 seats to be on side for a ‘left’ coalition suggests that despite the hubris the Irish electorate did not broadly vote for a new politics of the left. Despite common roots there is no love lost between Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail; obvious through the election campaign. Without either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael, Sinn Fein will find it impossible to be part of a new Irish Government. Sinn Fein is coming to that realisation.

Leo Varadkar encouraged the return of Sinn Fein to Stormont, with his Deputy, Simon Coveney, putting huge effort into talks alongside the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Julian Smith. There is a thought that the sudden swing into Government by Sinn Fein, when the runes were not promising, centred on Sinn Fein being made aware of the prospect of an imminent election in the Republic. It may seem odd to UK observers that a Government would give Sinn Fein that sort of leg up, but the calculation by Fine Gael may have been that Sinn Fein, in Government in Northern Ireland, would be credible enough to draw votes away from Fianna Fail in the Republics election.

The ‘old boys’ play footsie.

The Fine Gael play to play off Sinn Fein against Fianna Fail would leave Micheal Martin’s leadership of Fianna Fail in question – Martin has been a thoughtful and consistent voice against Sinn Fein and its association with the IRA, morally and politically.

Since the election Varadkar has continued to insist that Fine Gael is prepared for Opposition, placing Fianna Fail under pressure to work with Sinn Fein in coalition. Fianna Fail have refused to engage with Sinn Fein since the election. Given that Sinn Fein is such a poor partner (as above), a Government in which it has a prominent role would ultimately collapse. Having been sanitised by being a Party of Government (in its own head, the Government) Sinn Fein may well cannibalise more than other left Parties – it may well eat into the conservative republican base of Fianna Fail.

No wonder Fine Gael is sitting out the coalition merry-go-round. So far.

If a Government is to be formed the most stable and responsible would be Fianna Fail – which with 38 seats is the largest Party in the Parliament – Fine Gael (35 seats), along with the Greens (12 seats), and perhaps Labour. That would provide a stable coalition. Fine Gael would be unlikely to rest with a confidence and supply arrangement as it had with Fianna Fail in the last Government, as Sinn Fein with more seats would be the official opposition. The options seems to be a coalition including Fianna Fail and Fine Gael or another election. The advantage of a stable Government would be its ability to last a five-year term, long enough to deal with housing where Fine Gael had started to make some progress (too late) and to resolve some of the big items on health. That would clearly take the wind out of Sinn Fein sails and, from the evidence of Corbyn ‘winning’ in 2017, it is tough to sustain momentum for radical change through to a second election.

Talk of a Grand Coalition of Fianna Fail (38 seats), Sinn Fein (37 seats), and Fine Gael (35 seats) might provide a comfortable majority, but is unlikely; it would leave Fine Gael as the junior partner, and Sinn Fein just unreliable as a partner (again, see above).

Meanwhile, business has every right to be worried.

The grown-ups also have to take wider considerations into account beyond their immediate Party interests. While there has been a great deal of focus on the politics of the post-election period rather less has been placed on the other downside of Sinn Fein in power, even in coalition. Unstable Government, an election in forever the offing, isn’t a sure investment bet. Any participation by Sinn Fein would place a question over Ireland as an investment location.

How serious investors might consider the advent of a significant role for Sinn Fein and its Chavez-inspired policies was quickly obvious once the election outcomes became clear. The day after the election results saw millions of Euros wiped off the Irish stock market. Banks and property companies were particularly harshly hit. Sinn Fein is quick to blame ‘bankers’, just because. Rent freezes and abolishing the State’s help to buy scheme were key promises by Sinn Fein.

Other aspects of Sinn Fein rhetoric would concern multinationals. Ireland already faces the unwelcome direction of EU policy towards tax harmonisation – on which Ireland would have a veto, but without the UK no longer has a big player to argue alongside. Corporate tax reform, an international movement that threatens the “Irish double” is also a worry. Corporate tax revenues have soared in Ireland from around €4bn in 2014 to around €11bn in 2019. Even the Irish central Bank has warned this is unsustainable. No wonder an IMF study reported almost two-thirds of Irish FDI is “Phantom”. A 2019 report from Global Britain noted that “The numbers are increasingly materially we beyond the ‘blind eye’ that might initially have been turned.”

The Irish Government is quick to point to GDP growth as a measurement of success, and the colossal debt hangover from the Tiger years has much reduced relative to GDP since. Yet, Ireland’s per capita debt remains higher than Greece. Apple adjusting its accounting procedures in Europe, to run all sales through its Irish office, accounted for a single year’s leap in Irish GDP of 25%!

It’s the economy, stupid.

The economy of the Irish Republic has significant issues down the line, particularly in respect to the indisputable direction of travel on tax policy within the EU. Closer to home, the sudden emergence of Sinn Fein has pricked the bubble of political stability on which Ireland presented itself as a safe place to invest. The Irish stock market bore witness to what investors thought of Sinn Fein’s ‘victory’.

The grown-ups need to step up.

Any level of participation by Sinn Fein in an Irish Government will be inherently unstable, placing a dampener on investment and growth. Another election would resolve little, most likely enabling Sinn Fein to become the largest Party (seats) but only by adsorbing more votes from the ‘left’ and therefore not actually significantly changing the numbers in respect of a coalition of the ‘left’.

The only path to a stable Government in Ireland for the next number of years is where the grown-ups step up and take charge. Whether Fianna Fail and Fine Gael are up to placing the national interest above all else is something we’ll know in the coming weeks.

Confidence in Short Supply

No sooner had the new Executive returned than the competency of the public sector burst back onto front pages of the press. This time MOT centres, with lots of questions and not a lot of answers forthcoming on “how? why? and when might it be sorted?” The New Decade has started much the same way as the last one, with public services seeming unable to cope with breakdown that should have been anticipated and better managed in anyone’s book. A search of NI Water on Slugger O’Toole will give anyone an evening of reading, and the clear impression that that saga didn’t just happen out of nowhere.

In the private sector, “heads would roll”.

And between the start of the last decade and the opening of this decade we have had RHI and all the rest. The Public Inquiry into RHI is due to release its report soon, but if the many reports of the Audit Office on the many many items of public sector procurement that have ended over-budget and years late now sit on a shelf and despite identified issues there is no change.

It will take a lot to convince the public that change is going to happen any time soon.

Change may happen more quickly where there is effective accountability. The Assembly is meant to play a part in holding the Executive to account for its policy and process in delivery across Departments. The likelihood of that being effective has to be questioned against the fact that almost one fifth of the current Assembly are ‘co-opted’, replacements for MLAs elected at the last Assembly election and appointed by their respective Parties.

It isn’t good for democracy, and it doesn’t seem to be great for the Party either. With representatives the plaything of a central command, loyalty is expected and not earned. Anyone deviating from the central command is likely to be moved, out. That doesn’t help in finding the best media performers, the best thinkers, the best managers. Most of all, it presumes the electorate will vote the Party no matter who the candidate, whether it is the one the electorate voted for last time or not. The relationship between the electorate and elected is stretched to breaking point.

Sinn Fein is the most prolific in respect of changing elected/appointed representatives. Despite an exceptional, perhaps outlier, 2017 electoral cycle the Sinn Fein vote has been unsteady for a long number of years – the direction is downwards. Taking the electorate for granted is not necessarily working too well.

‘Co-option’ rather than election of a local representative is another factor eating away at the confidence of electorate in Northern Ireland. There has been a very unsteady start to the New Decade perhaps because there is a distinct lack of New Approach and an uneasy feeling that the public is going to be served a cold plate of much the same as before.

Some of these themes and points are commented on in the latest PoliticalOD podcast. Available from Podbean, Spotify and iTunes, direct to your phone. Or have a listen below.

Conversation by @3000Versts & @thedissenter

Promises, promises.

What is new on the Hill? Press photo opportunities are back for the members of the Northern Ireland Executive, MLAs return to full pay, and things go back to normal on the Hill; whatever normal is?.

The document released to the media preceding statements by the five largest Parties that they were all intending to nominate someone for the Executive ‘team’ was greeted mostly with, “about time’.

That document, however, seemed to fade into the background as the whole process of setting up the Executive and MLAs getting allocated roles became the focus of attention. Partly this may have been due to significantly different interpretations of the words within the document – wording that was constructed to the very best of NIO ambiguity. Everyone can’t be right in what they think they’re reading, and in due course Stormont will again be in crisis, because the stability that many had hoped would be embedded into any new process simply isn’t there. Nor, it would seem, is the money.

The lack of certainty on future funding of an expansive wish list that might accompany a restored Executive is astonishing. The podcast below references this recent article from Sam McBride on that point which is a good summary of how the start to this new Executive seems unsteady. Hard choices are on the way? Probably not a great worry of the DUP that it will be a Sinn Fein Minister of Finance who will be expected to present balanced books to the Executive.

Chatting with @3000Versts below on all of this and more. Have a listen.

Health status, Executive stasis, and Boris’s strategic manoeuvres on Brexit.

Despite many ‘Reports’ on Health reform (2011, 2014, 2016) Northern Ireland has seen little critical or  cultural change in frontline delivery of services. While the easy option for politicians is to demand and even offer more money, the current situation has arisen because of budgetary decisions taken in 2014. If it was pay or XX in 2014 it will still be pay or XX in 2019. Though our politicians are reluctant to talk about XX.

While it might seen that a new Executive is a possibility in the New Year, there doesn’t appear to be any public confidence that an Executive would have the will (or ability) to undertake difficult decisions that will be required on Health, or any of the other issues piled up on Ministerial in-trays. Last time there were major and difficult decisions to be made, Sinn Fein insisted they be sent back to Westminster.

It is Welfare Reform and the consequential impact on welfare recipients that might mean Sinn Fein needs an Assembly far more than any other Party. Yet despite the pressures on Sinn Fein there is a worrying trend in Stormont “negotiations” that enough is agreed to keep the show on the road while setting the path for the next crisis. Everyone does everything to keep Sinn Fein on board, while it does everything it can to wreck the train.

Finally, Boris’s plans for trade arrangements between GB and NI are an enigma – somewhere between what people read in the Withdrawal Agreement pages and believe to be likely, and then Boris’s view that that is all tosh. No idea, and all to some extent subject to what is decided between now and probably July in respect of a trade agreement between the UK and EU. With NI inside the UK customs union (the major difference between backstop and frontstop) there has been a shift in the dynamic of negotiation that isn’t much discussed.

All this in a handy 20 minutes or so, on this latest PoliticalOD podcast.

Back in the New Year. Have a great break. Merry Christmas.

Continuity at provisional Remain

The latest PoliticalOD podcast is a week behind our initial schedule. Waiting a week was a good idea  to see how the electoral contests would like up. Though of course there is a risk that until all nomination papers are submitted and the campaigns are fully on ‘go’ some of the comments may quickly fall out of date.

That said, the broad sweep here should stand up. Even if the opening comment on Upper Bann might quickly age, the proposition that this is likely a DUP hold would need a political earthquake to shake.

Neither the SDLP nor UUP have made decisions that reflect well on their respective leaderships, with strategies that are neither coherent or face up to the political realities. The most they should have done is set out a stall for a future Assembly election (whenever), avoid the dangers a First Past The Post election brings for smaller parties, and been brave enough to stick to their own Party interests. Brexit was so 2017, they should have been looking ahead, not backwards.

Many of the seats where Greens and SDLP and Sinn Fein are nobly standing down are little more than a gesture, a willingness to beat the DUP, and a hope to be more transfer friendly among each other when it comes to the Assembly.

The announcement by the Greens not to stand any candidates in Belfast would seem to be a calculation that few Unionists would transfer to them anyway – or that such votes are worth discounting in the future. It marks an unwelcome point where virtually the entire political landscape can be painted green or orange. Not quite what the Good Friday Agreement anticipated, and not entirely clear what that means for the future.

Whatever is happening locally, the likelihood of influence on the Brexit debate nationally is notional should Boris win, and irrelevant if Corbyn wins. Whatever happens the Commons timetable before the 31st January is tight, and we’ll either have an unscrutinised Withdrawal Bill rushed through Parliament, or at least a year of more Brexit dither although that might be the least of the country’s worries at that stage.

if a week is a long time in politics, the next five weeks may feel like a lifetime…

We’re learning that it is hard to update a podcast so check @thedissenter and @3000Versts for comments on stuff before our next podcast.

Hubris everywhere

Luckily, along with @3000Versts, we didn’t try to predict how the Brexit story was going to work out in the days following our get together to record Episode 3 of our podcast on Wednesday.

We’ve both kept an eye on the de Souza case over the past couple of years and still don’t see why someone puts hubris before husband. The issue has been prolonged because the obvious remedy is refused, because someone has a point to make.

Meanwhile, hubris is an entire economy if we are to look at recent IMF reports and note stories that perhaps haven’t made the headlines over recent years. The ‘low tax’ Irish economy is essentially parasitical, sucking in spreadsheet entires that effectively deny tax takes in big economies such as France, Germany and the UK. More on that in previous article below, but global businesses with funds ‘resting in Irish accounts’ is not on such a scale that it can’t be ignored indefinitely – and isn’t.

As if the OECD plans on global tax taking a direct pop at the Irish economic model (and others such as Netherlands and Luxembourg) but the more puzzling threat is in what might just be the final aspects of the Withdrawal Agreement between the UK and EU. No backstop, but also the UK (as a whole) no longer within the Customs Union, which means East West trade between the Republic and  UK will be subject to all customs and regulatory checks lest there be a threat to the precious Single Market. Not sure that one has been thought through entirely, though we’ll have to wait for the detail….

Phantom menace

The Irish economy as a model for Northern Ireland’s future? 

Much of the chatter around the anti-Brexit voices in Northern Ireland, has been around the notion that Northern Ireland will benefit from the “all-Ireland” economy closely alined to the EU.

The all-Ireland economy is a nationalist fiction. It conflates the geography of the island or Ireland with some notion of an integrated economy. That doesn’t stand up to any exploration of facts.


Having another word…

Just before meeting @3000Versts to record our second podcast effort, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party announced he was leaving his role in due course. We consider whether the UUP has any driving sense of purpose.

On lack of purpose we turned to the subject of the Rabble Alliance in Westminster, all powered up and nowhere to go?

We’re at the end of national Party Conference season and there has been one big issue, barely mentioned in the news reports or election pitches, though certainly prominent at the fringe of Conservative Party Conference.


Speaking out…

Together with @3000Versts  a new podcast has been created, PoliticalOD because the world needs another podcast (?) and there is always room for a Unionist voice – though we’ll range out of Northern Ireland with a wider and more worldly perspective from time to time. We’ll be local, thinking global.

What else would the first effort be about except “backstop or go”, and whether from the extensive preview of the story of David Cameron by David Cameron enables us to make a determination as to whether he is political ‘Hero or Villain’.

Still ‘experimental’. Think a word or two isn’t quite what was intended here and there – lesson one, no spellcheck. Plus we deliberately aimed at a ‘short’ podcast, 15-20 minutes; almost.

Have a listen. The podcast will also be tweeted out @3000Versts and @thedissenter. Let us know what you think, or join the conversation. Civil discourse only, or Mr Block will intervene.

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. Read more… »