Election Breakdown Report

Jenny Muir reports on our Election Breakdown panel discussion event of 20 June. The panel featured (pictured left-right below) Geraint Ellis, Queen’s University Belfast; Ellen Murray, Gender Jam NI and Green Party NI; Stephen Baker (Chairing for the Combination); Liz Nelson, Belfast Feminist Network; Brian Campfield, NIPSA; and Robin Wilson, independent researcher and journalist.

The panel at our #GEBreakdown, 20 June 2017

We were pleased to see around 40 people at our public meeting “Election Breakdown: where now for progressive politics?” in the Crescent Arts Centre on a hot evening in June. We were even more pleased to see it wasn’t just the usual suspects – there were a number of people for whom this was their first ‘political meeting’, and others who have only recently become politically engaged. There was some political eclecticism: Greens, Labour, Socialist Party, PUP, SDLP, our fellow bloggers at The Last Round, and no doubt others we didn’t know.

Our panel was also eclectic: Brian Campfield (NIPSA), Geraint Ellis (QUB), Ellen Murray (GenderJam NI and Green Party NI), Liz Nelson (Belfast Feminist Network) and Robin Wilson (independent researcher and journalist). The meeting was chaired by the Combination’s own Stephen Baker and fellow Combiner Maurice Macartney interviewed most panellists beforehand and also recorded the event.

Here’s a short report on what we covered. We’ll be posting further reflections and extracts from the meeting in the coming weeks.

What is ‘progressive politics’? Geraint described it as working for ‘emancipation of humanity from social oppression’, which requires addressing inequalities of wealth and power, opposing injustice, and ensuring everyone has access to basic requirements such as food and shelter. This requires an active state which takes control of these matters in the interests of the people.  An audience member suggested that the basis of progressivism is about extending rights to those who don’t currently have them.

There were interesting exchanges about what topics should be included: for example, Liz and Ellen spoke about the importance of abortion, disabled and trans rights, as well as campaigning against climate change. We should all be intersectional in our activism (Liz again) – championing each other’s rights. The usefulness of the term ‘progressive’ was questioned by some given that so many parties use it, but as yet we have not been able to think of a better alternative.

The problem is capitalism….and patriarchy, and racism…. Neoliberal capitalism has become, as Brian put it, ‘commodification of daily life and culture’. Geraint said we have been living in a post politics world, which led to the belief that Corbyn was unelectable – but is this over? Are we back to politics as a testing and questioning of norms? Ellen said she felt progress was being made in Northern Ireland, especially through adopting a human rights approach to campaigning, but she was not as optimistic about the situation in the UK overall.

What does progressive politics mean in Northern Ireland? Robin commented that, in the past, republicanism has been portrayed as progressive and unionism as not. This is an inadequate analysis given the complexity of opinions in both communities, and indeed an audience member from a unionist area commented that many people would agree with socialist ideas but would not call themselves socialists and would be put off by the language of rights, which is seen to have been claimed by the ‘other side’. Robin argued for a civic cosmopolitanism to go beyond this division and to include other issues such as workers’ rights, women’s rights and environmental issues, all of which are common to both traditional communities. Brian pointed out that we have to talk about the history of Northern Ireland and its relationship to British imperialism, as part of forming a local progressive agenda.  Geraint felt that the polarisation of party politics into two main parties has reduced the space for progressives, however all opportunities must still be taken.

Liz reminded us that we need to look beyond our local politics to make global alliances, not least because many issues go beyond our boundaries. Although Northern Ireland is now more open to progressive views than in the past, there needs to be more attention paid to why many people continue to vote for parties linked to social conservatism, or not to vote at all.

And what about Brexit? Of course there were different opinions in the room, as it’s an issue that divides progressives. Brian – who had voted to leave – acknowledged the limitations of the EU as it currently operates, but argued that it still provides and protects rights despite giving primacy to the interests of capital. On the other hand, he noted there are opportunities to do better, as indeed is currently the case for maternity leave in the UK. Geraint also pointed out that rights will be damaged without EU protection.

What is a ‘community’ in the 21st century? How do we connect with people nowadays? Robin said we need to find a progressive politics that acknowledges geographical communities are not as important as they used to be. Brian talked about the need for a new ‘community of common values and ideas’ and acknowledged this was a challenge for trade unionism.

This exploration connected with a recurrent theme, the role of social media. Different views were expressed about the social media ‘bubble’, but it was strongly defended by several in the audience and also by Ellen, who celebrated its benefits for people with disabilities. Social media can connect otherwise isolated people and so can be positive. But everyone agreed it’s only part of the picture, and face to face campaigning remains essential.

How to move forward: Robin suggested that Northern Ireland needs a new progressive political entity but it was more likely to be a network than a political party: ‘the broadest secular church possible’. A coalition could form around the universal norms of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. If the Additional Member System were adopted for NI elections then a progressive list with candidates from more than one party could be agreed. An audience member thought a new party would split the progressive vote even further, and identified the challenge of bringing progressives from different parties together. There was also a call for the Labour Party to stand candidates in Northern Ireland.

Brian reminded us never to abandon radical ideas. Progressives need to get people elected but also not to abandon protests and lobbying, translating networks into activism. Liz recommended ‘the power of listening’ to people’s stories of their experiences and oppression. Ellen thought there were opportunities at the moment for changing the conversation, such as queer activism, but there is still a lack of disabled candidates standing in elections. Political education is needed.

Stephen, as Chair, commented on the optimism of most of the panel’s contributions. There was a sense that opportunities exist at the moment, and a feeling of having turned a corner, even though the Tories are still in power.

We hope to organise more events like this, funding permitting, and look forward to developing these ideas within a progressive network.

Jenny Muir

30 July 2017

Progressives can do better than just point to the DUP bogeyman

In a guest post, Rowan Tunnicliffe argues that focusing on the DUP’s social conservatism is not enough; progressives must set about building an alternative.

After a tiring and unnecessary General Election campaign, the Conservative Party in Britain joined forces with the DUP. This led to some unsavoury quotes by senior DUP members being dredged up for an audience to whom this brand of ultra-conservatism was a novelty.

Politicians across the water in Great Britain launched a broadside against the party, notably referring to them as “dinosaurs” in the House of Commons.

This was an English response for an English audience. For progressives in Northern Ireland who have long suffered the DUP’s antiquated social beliefs, there was both a space and a need for a more nuanced approach.

Instead, seeing what the English media and politicians were getting away with, some progressives here have sensed it is open season to air their views on the DUP in the knowledge that they have cover from the rest of the UK.

However, this response is ultimately self-defeating. The DUP remain the largest party in Northern Ireland, and only they and Sinn Féin were able to increase their vote share in the June election. Painting them as a bogeyman ignores the fact that they are popular, and increasingly so.

The DUP’s support reaches across social classes. But it is safe to say they get the lion’s share of working and lower middle-class support in the unionist community. In England, the Conservatives are typically seen as a party for the wealthy, but such simplistic analysis ignores the fact that they also have significant support in less affluent segments of society.

Both the DUP and the Conservatives have instinctive appeal to those who seek to improve their lives, to those who aspire to a better job and to those who want to maintain a sense of their own identity. These people’s priorities may – quite understandably – lie in their own day-to-day lives, rather than pushing progressive social policies for minority groups, for example.

Speaking personally, I grew up in a lower middle-class background in England, and would have shared this attitude when I was younger. My grandfather ran a small family company, my mum was a single-parent looking after me. I grew up thinking that the Conservative Party offered a good deal for people like me, an opportunity to improve my life if I worked for it.

As someone who went on to become an economist, I now realise that any success I have achieved has come despite the policies of Thatcher and Major that were in place when I was young, not because of them.

My family were not political. Our priorities did not lie in noble causes. Even if we were sympathetic to marriage equality (and we were), it was not the driving factor that would have taken us to a polling station. Jobs, economic growth and stability were.

Mocking the DUP, and indeed the Conservatives in England, therefore makes progressives seem out of touch. It limits the appeal of politicians and activists who seem to dedicate the majority of their time and energy engaging in cheap attacks on some of the DUP’s questionable social views.

Furthermore, most people in Northern Ireland don’t care about the details of the Tory-DUP deal – the headline figure of millions of extra pounds for Northern Ireland’s healthcare system is enough to welcome it. That is not to say it should not face criticism, but that criticism should not become our defining message.

Progressives hold the solutions to many of the problems that traditional DUP (and indeed Conservative) supporters face. A good example of this is a motion brought to Belfast City Council recently by the Green Party’s Georgina Milne, which called for increased investment in the renewable energy sector in Belfast. This would secure existing manufacturing jobs in the city and create more on a long-term, sustainable basis. These would be better quality and better paid jobs than many currently have.

Instead of dedicating significant amounts of time attacking the DUP, as progressives we should be spending our time articulating and promoting these positive alternatives to the status quo.

It will be much harder work than simply condemning crass and deplorable comments on, for example, homosexuality, but in the end, it will create the electoral growth to take progressive parties to government.

It is only through being in that position that we will be able to implement the policies that will help those whose equality we rightly campaign for, as well as those whose priorities lie elsewhere.

 

Rowan Tunnicliffe is an economist who lives in Belfast. He is the Secretary of the Green Party in Northern Ireland. Any views expressed in this piece are personal views and should not be taken to be representative of the Green Party.

17 July 2017

Love Equality

The Combination, reflecting the range of progressives in our society, includes people who identify with a faith and people who do not.  This post by Tanya Jones addresses the issue of equal marriage from a Christian perspective.

The Love Equality March in Belfast

Three events in the past few weeks: the Tory-DUP pact, the amendment of the German Civil Code by the Bundestag, and the LoveEquality march in Belfast on 1 July, have brought the issue of same-sex marriage back into full focus.  In a swathe of Europe which includes the rest of the British Isles, Scandinavia, France, Spain and Portugal, Northern Ireland stands alone in refusing to authorise or recognise the marriages of two women or of two men.  Notoriously, public opinion here is now clearly in favour of changes in the law, and, in the last Assembly, so were a majority of MLAs, with the DUP using (or misusing) the petition of concern to prevent its passing.

For me, it is deeply sad, perverse and even ironic that the main force behind this resistance consists of those who identify as fellow Christians.  While there are a few groups, lay people and members of the clergy who have spoken bravely and generously in favour of marriage equality, the majority of churches and their members have been either vociferously opposed or awkwardly silent.  Most of the latter are not bigoted puritans, but well-meaning people torn between their own best instincts and a shaky but strident conservative social teaching.

This is no longer a matter of internal debate, open to believers only.  The anti-gay religious tradition, homophobic in effect if not in intention, and shared across many denominations, is the sole justification for the DUP’s stubborn stance.  If they use theology to stand in the way of democratically mandated progress, I believe that all of us have the right to interrogate it, whatever our beliefs or background.

The ‘Christian’ denial of equal marriage rights takes three principal forms:

1. The Bible condemns same-gender sexual relationships.

It is, of course, quite odd to speak of ‘the Bible’ taking a single view on any subject, consisting as it does of a range of different types of literature, exploring often contradictory conceptions of God and society.  There are no true fundamentalists, for each of us choose which books and passages to privilege, which to disregard and how to attribute incompatible statements.  But even if every reference to same-sex attraction throughout the Old and New Testaments (and there are not nearly as many as you might think) is interpreted in an evangelical mode as the ‘Word of God’, the result is still not a remotely anti-gay Creator.  We know, because a brilliant young American called Matthew Vines has done just that, and his video here bridges the perceived gap between progressives and evangelicals on this issue as nothing else I’ve ever seen.

2. The Catholic church teaches that such relationships are wrong.

It does, yes, even under everyone’s favourite eco-pope.  But, as the referendum in the Republic of Ireland showed, the most devout Catholics are quite capable of making up their own minds in a different direction to their bishops’.  Conscience is paramount, as generations of priests have reassured their contraception-using parishioners in the confessional.  What is more, the condemnation doesn’t go quite so far back as we tend to believe. As the historian John Boswell meticulously uncovered in The Marriage of Likeness: Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe, over twenty years ago, liturgical ceremonies almost indistinguishable from heterosexual weddings were presided over by priests across Europe for many centuries.   The beautifully worded, and directly translated offices in Boswell’s appendix would need little or no amendment to be used by same-sex couples today, ‘not bound by nature but by faith’ in ‘unashamed fidelity’ and ‘true love’.

3. It would be a ‘redefinition of marriage’.

This is the favourite version at the moment.  It sounds so reasonable, so non-judgemental, so regretful.  But when you look at it properly, it only means the same as the others.  There is an interesting question as to when the expansion of a category becomes a ‘redefinition’, but I don’t think it has much to do with whether or not my gay friends should be able to get married.  And even if it is sufficient to be a ‘redefinition’, then those making this argument have to explain why it matters.  Words are constantly being redefined, to the relief of lexicographers, and civilisation doesn’t necessarily collapse. Five years ago the ‘Christian Institute’ produced a document entitled Redefining Marriage.  I don’t recommend that you read it, unless you are particularly in need of an urgent emetic. It is full of circular arguments, non-sequiturs, random historical and sociological assertions and extremely offensive allegations, of the kind that even DUP ministers have since learned not to make.  But at the core of all this unpleasant tangle is the claim that sex between people of the same gender is ‘morally wrong’.  For all the pseudo-psychology, the faux-linguistic analysis, that’s all it comes down to in the end.

Those are the negatives, the asserted ‘Christian’ justifications for a repressive stance.  But there are positive reasons why, as  Christians, we would fully support not only equal marriage, but the other vital reforms needed to make life fair and joyful for LGBTQ people.  Reading the Gospels, with their interpolations and interpretations, is not straightforward, but there are characteristics of Jesus of Nazareth’s life and teaching which are clear and challenging.  He sought out and supported the marginalised, especially women and those perceived as impure.  He rejected the privileging of conventional family structures and responsibilities over the quest for social justice. His own closest emotional bond appears to have been with another man (‘the disciple whom he loved’) and in healing the centurion’s ‘servant’ he probably recognised and implicitly affirmed a same-sex relationship.  The actions which made him angry were those of injustice and exploitation, never of sexual difference. And he asserted and celebrated the infinite worth of each person, without moral or theological precondition.

So where does that leave us? I’d like to see all of us, whether atheist, agnostic or of any faith asking a lot more questions of those who claim a religious basis for their opposition to marriage equality.  I’d like to see more people of faith, and Christians in particular, standing up for the rights of their LGBTQ sisters and brothers, on this and other issues. And I’d like this to be an opportunity to build bridges, to find common ground, instead of watching new fissures grow.

Tanya Jones

14 July 2017

 

What’s the problem with the Tory-DUP Agreement?

Following our previous post on the Tory-DUP ‘Confidence and Supply’ trick, Jenny Muir looks in greater detail at what the deal means for Northern Ireland.

What does the deal mean for Stormont?

Anyone who was taken by surprise at the negotiating skills of the DUP probably doesn’t live in Northern Ireland or take a great deal of interest in recent history here – which includes the Good Friday (or Belfast) Agreement, the St Andrews Agreement, the Hillsborough Agreement, the Stormont House and Fresh Start Agreements…. you get the picture.

It’s worth reading the short Confidence and Supply Agreement in full, including the annex which sets out the financial support in more detail. The DUP has looked after their key constituents absolutely brilliantly: pensioners through retention of the ‘triple lock’ and the Winter Fuel Payment; the armed forces; support for the Reserve Forces in Northern Ireland; and retention of funds for farm support for the lifetime of this Parliament. All except the Reserve Forces commitment apply across the UK.

But the details of the agreed financial support reveal a far wider remit. £400m for infrastructure development; £150m for ultra-fast broadband; £100m for severely deprived areas; £100m for ‘immediate pressures’ in health and education; £200m for health service restructuring; £50m for mental health. A cool £1bn, mainly in the next two years although two of the smaller amounts (regeneration and mental health) are to be drawn down over five years. Money previously allocated to spend on shared education and housing is also to be used within this period. The non-financial commitments include activation of the previous commitment to devolution of Corporation Tax and Air Passenger Duty (APD); the introduction of City Deals and more Enterprise Zones.

So the DUP have shaken the magic money tree, I suspect without caring what the rest of the UK thinks. And that, as Maurice and Stephen have said, could cause issues in the longer term. But what’s the immediate problem for progressives?

We can’t and shouldn’t oppose the extra resources, although we might oppose the pro-corporate, anti-environment and anti-integration approach demonstrated by the emphasis on attracting investment, the military spending, potentially lower corporation tax and less APD. We may think other items should have been included, such as further mitigation of welfare ‘reform’, and we may very possibly think the reversal of austerity requires a great deal more than a £1bn bribe. But I suspect none of these arguments will have much traction with the wider public.

However, the ideology of the Agreement does not bode well for the future of Northern Ireland. Much has been made over the water of the DUP’s social conservatism, which of course is shared by other parties here. There is nothing in the Agreement seeking to restrict abortion rights or equal marriage in GB, and it would have been ridiculous to expect this. The more important question about the Agreement is whether it ditches the ability of the ruling party in Westminster to play their part in restoring devolved government in Northern Ireland through maintaining the impartiality pledged in the Good Friday Agreement.

Most obviously, we can contrast the Agreement’s statement on devolved government with the Downing Street Declaration that kick started the peace process in 1993 when John Major was Prime Minister. Para 4 begins (my emphasis):

The Prime Minister, on behalf of the British Government, reaffirms that they will uphold the democratic wish of the greater number of the people of Northern Ireland on the issue of whether they prefer to support the Union or a sovereign united Ireland. On this basis, he reiterates, on the behalf of the British Government, that they have no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland. Their primary interest is to see peace, stability and reconciliation established by agreement among all the people who inhabit the island, and they will work together with the Irish Government to achieve such an agreement, which will embrace the totality of relationships.

The Tory-DUP Agreement (p.2) includes (also my emphasis):

As set out in its General Election manifesto the Conservative Party will never be neutral in expressing its support for the Union. As the UK government we believe that Northern Ireland’s future is best served within a stronger United Kingdom. We will always uphold the consent principle and the democratic wishes of the people of Northern Ireland. The Conservative Party will never countenance any constitutional arrangements that are incompatible with the consent principle…. The UK government will continue to support close co-operation with the Irish government, and work with them in accordance with the Belfast Agreement and subsequent agreements, while recognising that ultimate responsibility for political stability in Northern Ireland rests with the UK government.

It’s not surprising that John Major (now Sir John) expressed his concern about a DUP deal. Although the Agreement does include a continuing commitment to the consent principle, it makes clear that a Conservative government (as distinct from the Conservative Party) would not take a neutral position should that principle be exercised through a border poll.

But there are also smaller triggers running through the documents. Reference exclusively to the ‘Belfast Agreement’ without the counterbalancing ‘Good Friday Agreement’ is one. Also, the DUP’s commitment to support the Tories on matters of national security and to maintain defence expenditure, along with support of NI’s reserve forces, is not compatible with the essential demilitarisation of NI society. And, on the final page of the annex, the legacy bodies are to be established so as to operate in ways that are fair, balanced and proportionate and which do not unfairly focus on former members of the armed forces or police.

I have mixed feelings about the ‘honest broker’ neutrality argument, not least because it’s been used by the Labour Party for years as the reason why they don’t stand for election in NI. It ought to be possible for a British political party to stand in NI – as, indeed, the Tories do – and to take a position on the union. However, once a party goes into government the situation changes, especially when negotiations are taking place to re-establish a broken regional administration.

It’s not enough to remove the Secretary of State for NI’s involvement in the implementation of the Tory-DUP Agreement, in order to preserve a semblance of neutrality, if unionist language permeates the Agreement itself. In Northern Ireland politics, perception is all. It gives Sinn Féin another excuse to reject a settlement, at a time when the word on the street is that they don’t want one anyway. And the extra £1bn isn’t even dependent on the restoration of the Assembly, a fairly obvious carrot and stick approach which would have put Sinn Féin in a very difficult position.

The Tory-DUP Agreement is economically welcome but ideologically poisonous. It looks as if the Northern Ireland Assembly will be collateral damage in this shabby attempt to keep Theresa May in power. At the same time, the Tories are addressing some concerns of British MPs about working with the DUP. Northern Ireland women will no longer have to pay for abortions in England (followed by Scotland and Wales). And there is also a new commitment to legislation for declaration of political donations in NI, although only from 1 July 2017, so sweeping the DUP’s Brexit ‘dark money’ under the carpet for ever. We can only speculate about how the new relationship will play out, but it’s possible the DUP may find that never again will they have as much influence as they do now. In the longer run they may pay very dearly for that £1bn.

Jenny Muir

10 July 2017