Why an anti-Brexit election pact in Northern Ireland is unlikely

Jenny Muir considers the possibilities for pacts in the run up to yet another snap election.

In a previous Combination post I have written about developing a politics of progressive pragmatism, based around “broad and doubtless shifting partnerships to achieve specific goals, and a continuing free for all at the ballot box”. That’s because election time raises a crucial and very basic question about alliances – progressive or otherwise. Fighting elections is an important part of what political parties do. So why would you become a party activist, in many cases put in hours of voluntary work over the years, to then stand down your candidate and tell your supporters to vote for another party?

The answer is that you have your eye on a prize that transcends your normal election agenda. This is why pacts are rare. The best known in Northern Ireland is the Fermanagh and South Tyrone 1981 Westminster by-election won by Bobby Sands. Here, the objective was to elect a hunger striker to embarrass the British Government and win support for their cause. Sands died 26 days later. It was an effective tactic, although it is fair to question just how ‘voluntary’ were some of the candidate withdrawals.

More recently, we have had the disastrous UUP and Conservative Party connection in 2009 and 2010, which did not have such a clear intent. It appeared to be a precursor to a merger, which did not happen in the end. However, in the 2015 general election there was a more successful agreement between the UUP and DUP in four ruthlessly targeted constituencies. This pact maintained the independence of both parties and unseated both Naomi Long from East Belfast (by the DUP) and Michelle Gildernew from Fermanagh and South Tyrone (by the UUP). The overarching goal here was to keep out themmuns – and there is talk that we shall face the same again.

So is Brexit a transcendent issue on this scale? Could parties agree who should be involved in an anti Brexit pact, agree a common policy approach, and then agree who stands where?

  • Who should be involved? Alliance have already ruled themselves out. Other anti Brexit parties include the SDLP, Sinn Féin and the Greens. The position of the UUP appears to have retreated into getting the best for NI rather than any continuing active opposition. People Before Profit were pro Brexit. Current discussions seem only to have included SDLP, Sinn Féin and the Greens.
  • What does being anti Brexit actually mean? ‘Special Status’ for Northern Ireland? A second referendum? The best possible Article 50 deal? Staying in the Single Market? Whatever you’re having yourself?
  • How would an anti Brexit approach be put into practice? If a position could be agreed, the MP representing it would need to attend the House of Commons to speak and vote on it.
  • Which party stands where? Presumably a pact would target the eight seats currently held by the DUP (East Belfast, North Belfast, East Antrim, East Londonderry, Lagan Valley, North Antrim, Strangford and Upper Bann), and possibly the two UUP seats (South Antrim, and Fermanagh & South Tyrone) if there were a feeling that the UUP cannot be relied upon.

Regarding current the DUP seats: The only chance of unseating the DUP in East Belfast comes from Alliance. In North Belfast, North Antrim and Upper Bann SF could win but it would require no DUP/ UUP pact, and result in more abstentionist MPs. In East Antrim, Lagan Valley and Strangford the strongest challengers are the UUP and Alliance. In East Londonderry, SF and the SDLP would need UUP votes to unseat the DUP. Regarding the current UUP seats, South Antrim is a fight between the UUP and the DUP; and FST is always close run between a unionist and SF; however again the pro Brexit MP would not be taking their seat. 

In short, the most effective challenger in most of these seats would be the UUP, Alliance or the abstentionist Sinn Fein. The main beneficiary from an anti Brexit pact would be Sinn Féin.

To conclude, an anti Brexit pact in Northern Ireland would need to meet the criterion of being an overarching imperative which all participating parties agree is more important than their own agendas. It would need a very clear understanding of what being anti Brexit actually means, in order to communicate to the electorate what they would be voting for. It would require all parties to commit to taking their seats at Westminster in order actively to oppose Brexit. And given NI’s communal voting patterns, it would be hard for any party other than Sinn Féin to usurp the DUP or UUP in their currently seats, especially without the co-operation of the Alliance Party.

Therefore an anti Brexit pact in NI is unlikely. But sadly it does look as if we’ll get a pan unionist pact again. It says much about our politics that some parties can work together to keep us divided, whereas we cannot meaningfully combine on the most important issue of our time. Voters will have to make their own decisions.

Jenny Muir

22 April 2017

I wouldn’t start from here

In the wake of recent events in Syria, Tanya Jones argues that we need to find and develop nonviolent ways of extending real democracy, of sharing resources fairly, and of resolving conflict. We may not have chosen this as a starting point; but if we don’t start now, she warns, it is going to get a great deal harder in the near future.

What will remain of us if we don’t build democracy and nonviolence now?

If you don’t hurt people, you don’t really care.  That seems to be the message of the almost universal Western approval of the US bombing of Syria on Thursday.  We don’t know what the effects of the fifty-nine missiles will be, how many people have been killed immediately and how many will suffer from their effects. We don’t really mind that Donald Trump acted without the authority either of the United Nations or of his own Congress.  We don’t ask ourselves, remembering the Ghouta attack of 2013, how sure we can really be of Assad’s culpability this time.  We simply breathe a sigh of relief that something has been done, some ‘message sent’, some tension relieved, some reassurance given than we are not callous observers.  If the alternatives are indifference or violence, we will, when the stakes are presented as so high, choose violence.

There was a time when this was true on every level, the domestic as well as the global.  Parents and schoolteachers who did not beat the children in their charge were irresponsible, naive, ultimately cruel in neglecting their duty to mould children into virtue.  Our criminal justice system relied upon violence as its ultimate sanction.  Slowly, very slowly, we came to realise that there were better ways. This realisation trickled as far as our attitude towards our nearest neighbours, though, as evidenced by Michael Howard’s comments about Spain, it may not long survive Brexit. But as far as our stance towards the world at large is concerned, violence is still the answer.

Sometimes this means outright war, though that is expensive in every sense.  More often we content ourselves with one-off incidents, or, as now, by approving those of others; with arming, funding and training direct combatants; with supporting proxy militias, with subsidised arms sales or by the use of military technology in ways that are unclear and often, as in ‘no-fly zones’ don’t sound overly aggressive at all.  All of these involvements of course kill people, primarily civilians, all of them prolong the conflicts, all of them enmesh us, however ignorant we may be, in the web of violence, and all of them reduce our capability to act as honest brokers in helping to seek resolution and peace.

But what are the alternatives?  If we are determined to reject violence, are we condemned to a UKIP-style insularity whereby we don’t attack others only because it’s too much trouble?  I don’t believe so.  The absence of a positive word for non-violence should not mislead us into thinking that it is a lesser, an easier, a weaker alternative to the rifle or the drone.  On the contrary, it is considerably more difficult, not least because our position in the world, the structures that uphold us, have been built for so many centuries upon the threat and use of violence. To take part in peaceful, co-operative solutions, the UK needs not just to begin at the same level as its potential partners but to show a degree of humility and regret for past mistakes that sits particularly ill with our current bombastic jingoism.  In the words of the old joke, in this, as in so much else, I wouldn’t start from here.

But, given that here is where we are, perhaps we might try some of the following:

  1. Tell the truth. About history and in particular our own role.  As far as Syria and the Middle East are concerned, that includes the Sykes-Picot Agreement of a hundred years ago, Winston Churchill’s bright idea, long before his national treasurehood, of converting the Navy from coal to oil and needing a source for the same, the Suez Canal and our dependence upon India to buy our stuff, the duplicitous mess we made over Israel and Palestine, our ongoing rivalry with France and our part in the Cold War, all long before Blair and the dodgy dossier.   About the complexity of the Syrian war and the impossiblity of finding a side wholeheartedly to support.  About the role of climate change in catalysing the conflict, and our responsibility for that.  About what lies behind the simple diagrams and cheerful words about ‘precision bombing’ and ‘collateral damage’.
  2. Listen to the voices. There’s nothing essentially unusual or alien about the conflict in Syria. Those who began demonstrating in March 2011, as part of the wider Arab Spring, wanted what we all want: a chance to have our say in our own government, to talk about politics and our lives, to have the chance to earn a living and care for our families, to give our children a better future. Those same quiet voices are speaking throughout the world, and we, in our privileged position, have the opportunity to listen, to amplify, to reply and to support them, before they are shouted down by noisier demands. Which leads me to:
  3. Understand the potential for violence and sectarianism. Most movements for reform, for human rights and equality begin peacefully, very peacefully. No one knows better than the oppressed that real social justice and equality can’t exist in a world of division and death.  But where good and positive protest is met by violent repression, old wounds can easily be opened, solidarity fissured into prejudice and courage twisted into despair.  Then we look, too late, across from our comfortable vantage-point and blame ethnic and religious identities for conflicts that have a much more universal cause.
  4. Don’t demonise individuals. It’s so tempting, and so easy to ascribe all blame to ‘evil’ leaders, whether ‘dictators’ or ‘terrorists’ and so to turn messy and complex situations into simple morality plays. It’s used to justify violence, to distinguish this particular act of cleansing from the ambiguities of past actions and to avoid dealing with our own complicity and the need to dismantle some of our own privilege. It might be as well to remind ourselves, too, of the clay feet of our favourite heroes.
  5. Help those in need. With so-called ‘humanitarian aid’, of course: food, water, shelter, medical care. But also by providing spaces for dialogue, exploration, discovery, transformation (of us as well as them), by demonstrating patience and generosity.  Those of us living in Northern Ireland are acutely aware of how very much time and room is needed to build peace, and that the process, as the past few weeks have shown, is not without its cul-de-sacs and quagmires.  And if that is the case with a conflict so comparatively straightforward, with so few truly global implications and so little outside intermeddling, we might have the grace to realise how much more goodwill and good energies will be needed to achieve the common good in the Middle East.
  6. Welcome refugees. Again, a little imagination would go a long way. These are people like us, people whose needs and hopes are basically the same as our own, with the difference that they have been forced from their homes, their work, often their families, everything that made their daily lives humdrum and ordinary.  They ask very little, mostly to go home as soon as they can.  We can learn far more than we are called upon to give.
  7. Be brave. It’s not always easy to go against the consensus, especially when that consensus is supported by such a wave of moral outrage and illustrated by scenes of horror and heart-stopping tenderness. However bad the consequences of military action, its adherents can comfort themselves by saying ‘At least we did something’.  Non-violent action is something too, often very much more, but it doesn’t reach the front pages, and it’s not so easy to condense into 140 characters.  So make connections, talk, give generously, say sorry, pray if that’s your thing, but most of all listen and think.  This isn’t primarily about us, about virtue-signalling, or appearing strong, or making sure we condemn in all the right places.  It’s about the people affected now, and their children and theirs in turn.  And it’s about all the people in other places who will, over the next decades, gather in their city squares calling for justice and equality and a halfway decent life.

We have a little space of time now, while the world is still comparatively stable, while the European Union still exists, while nuclear weapons haven’t been used to their full extent for seventy years, before our harvests and water supplies and coasts are devastated by climate change.  In this little space of time we could, if we set our minds to it, really find and develop nonviolent ways of welcoming campaigns for equality and free speech, of celebrating diversity and change, of facilitating real democracy of sharing resources fairly and of resolving conflict. It’s going to be a great deal harder if we don’t do it now. Let’s not give up before we’ve tried.

Tanya Jones

10 April 2017

Crank economics 2.0

The ‘economic nationalism’ offered by right-wing populists sounds as though it is a break with the dominant, neoliberal economic model (the “crank economy”), argues Maurice Macartney, but on closer inspection, it is simply another version, this time within more easily controlled borders.

#CrankEconomy – how the mechanism works!

It has been a bad few weeks for right-wing populists (pauses for cheering to subside).

Bouffant hairdo notwithstanding, Geert Wilders failed to become the Dutch Donald Trump, and the original US version failed to ‘repeal and replace’ President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Of course, we should be careful not to read too much into these events. We have yet to see how many French voters will support Marine Le Pen’s National Front, for instance. Moreover, Mr Trump may have failed to take health care off millions of working class Americans, but he may yet achieve other aims such as doling out yet more tax cuts to an already hyper-rich elite.

Nevertheless, Mr Trump’s failure leaves him looking less of a ‘closer’, more a loser. And if his astonishing claim that “nobody knew healthcare could be this complicated” (it’s the ‘nobody’ that gets me – wasn’t he paying attention this last seven years?) is anything to go by, he may have just started to realise he is out of his depth.  If those who voted for him begin to realise that too, the mid-term elections of 2018 are going to be very interesting.

Closer to home, we are also witnessing the continuing collapse of UKIP, with their sole MP, Douglas Carswell, jumping ship to become an Independent. Ironically enough.

So are we at a turning point? Has the surge of right wing populism reached its high tide mark? Time will tell – but progressive politicians and campaigners cannot afford to sit back and relax. It cannot be denied that Trump, Wilders, Le Pen, Farage and the rest have tapped into a broad seam of discontent, the strength and breadth of which took most of us on the left or even on the centre right by surprise. Even if Trump (let’s use him as metonym) begins to lose momentum at this stage we cannot simply go back to business as usual, for at least two key reasons, one more immediate, the other more fundamental.

One immediate reason for Trump’s success was his open appeal to a xenophobia of varying degrees of intensity. The openness of this appeal shocked liberals and leftists, and the centre right, most of whom felt that such a man could never, surely, make it all the way to the White House. But it is precisely that unthinkability that gives us a clue to the power of Trump’s appeal, and gives us forewarning about the way to overcome it.

In an excellent discussion of identity politics in the New Humanist, Lola Okolosie and Vron Ware remind us that in the late 1970s, when Rock Against Racism got going, it helped make racism ‘uncool’. The effect, as Ware says, was a “powerful relegation of racist views to the edge of what was acceptable, without being moralistic”. No one, until recently, she significantly continues, wanted to be seen as racist. Okolosie draws the conclusion: someone like Nigel Farage allows people who formerly held back because they did not want to be seen to be racist to come out, as it were. Mr Farage’s supporters felt they suddenly had authorisation to “speak their truth”. The parallels with Mr Trump’s energetic rallies are clear.

The lessons for the left, though, perhaps need a bit more thought. To be clear, Rock Against Racism, and all the other anti-racist efforts, were great and necessary interventions. But not wanting to be seen to be racist is not the same thing as not wanting to be racist. If we are to address the cause of the current upsurge in overt xenophobia, simply shouting and shutting down the xenophobes (being ‘moralistic’) will not do the trick. Rather, we need to defuse the xenophobia itself. That will take a long, detailed effort that cannot bypass honest conversation. Amongst ourselves, and with others.

You cannot solve the problem of xenophobia, after all, by repeating its core gesture – ‘othering’ a whole group of people and labelling them ‘enemies’ (or in this case ‘racists’).  Not without talking to them first, at any rate. Xenophobia comes in a spectrum, with everything from those expressing confused discomfort at one end to out and out white supremacists at the other. Collapsing that spectrum down, so that ‘they’ appear to be ‘all the same’ is not how to deal with this. But because many, including some on the left, are so quick to collapse the spectrum rather than engage in a conversation about the meaning of the confused discomfort (think Gordon Brown meets Gillian Duffy), the underlying issues have remained unaddressed, sometimes for decades.

And it is the underlying issues that we need to be clear about if we are to get at the root causes of our current problems. Indeed, Gordon Brown couldn’t address those with Mrs Duffy because it would have meant facing up to the systematic flaws in the policies he had been pursuing since 1997. Policies governed by the logic of crank economics.

To sum up that logic, for thirty odd years the dominant political parties told us that the market knows best, that if we try to ‘interfere’ with the workings of the market, no matter how painful they may sometimes be, we will do more harm than good. We will kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.  Millionaire Conservatives and Republicans told us that we had to keep turning the crank, keeping costs (such as wages) down and rewarding the ‘wealth creators’ or they wouldn’t be able to ‘create jobs for us’. Self-proclaimed ‘centrists’, like millionaire Tony Blair, and the Clintons, told us that we had to keep turning the crank, keeping costs down and rewarding the ‘wealth creators’ or we wouldn’t have money to put into public services or social security.

Enough people bought into this logic for it to shape the outcome of successive elections from the late 1970s until the crank broke in 2008. Oh, sure, conservative governments were elected after that – decades of momentum don’t come to a halt overnight – but try as they might to get the crank turning again, some of the workings had become disconnected. The machinery was out of whack. But why?

Predictably, some politicians and newspapers opened, in Tanya Jones’s wonderful phrase, a can of worms and pulled out a big red herring. They pointed at the broken workings and sold the idea that it was foreigners what done it. Bureaucrats in Brussels, Eastern Europeans taking ‘our’ jobs and houses.

Wrong. But repeat that story often enough (daily, as in Daily Mail) and it starts to sound, to some, like common sense. For those at the receiving end of the downward forces, symptoms of the crank economy come to appear as causes in themselves­. People without much money competing for precarious jobs on low wages, competing for barely affordable housing, or for the last remaining places in an overcrowded school find it easier to spot an outsider coming in for a share of these resources than to notice the real problem: the massive, and systematically increasing share of our collective resources being cranked to a tiny group at the top, precisely by putting downward pressure on a whole broad range of people at the bottom.

We need to get the message out: yes, you have been given a raw deal, but it’s not because of outsiders. It is because of the policies pursued for decades by the political parties currently claiming they have ‘taken back control’ for you.

Their goal is not to ‘repeal and replace’ the crank – quite the opposite. Look at the details of the ‘replacement’ Mr Trump had in mind for Obamacare. Here’s a graph, showing the scale of the cuts in coverage for the least well off, and the associated huge tax breaks for the very wealthiest.

And here is a graph showing the forecast effects of Mr Trump’s and Mr Ryan’s tax plans.

Bit of a pattern emerging, no?

Incidentally, clearly Ryan’s is more painful for average Americans than Trump’s, but let’s not be hoodwinked into thinking the latter is anything but a high-geared, well-greased machine cranking wealth to the top. Indeed a really cynical part of me thinks the whole function of the Ryan plan (according to which 99.6 per cent of the tax relief over the next decade would go to the top 1 per cent) is to make Trump’s (with ‘only’ 50.8 per cent going to the top) look generous. Lest you are tempted by that bait, remember this: those in the poorest fifth will ‘save’ $100 under Ryan and $120 under Trump (though of course they will bear the brunt of public service cuts). Those in the top 0.1 per cent (including, for instance, the Trump family) will receive $1.4m under Ryan and fully $1.5m under Trump. Let’s see that on a chart:

Struggling to see the two columns on the left? Then let’s convert the figures into something more visible. If each dollar is 1 millimetre, the columns representing the poorest fifth come in at just over 10 centimetres, or around four inches. About the height of a coffee cup. The columns representing the tax relief for the top 0.1 per cent reach 1.4 and 1.5 Kilometres respectively. There is currently no building on earth tall enough to unfurl a full-scale copy of our chart from.

Take back control for whom? For ordinary citizens? For democracy? No: the right-wing populists want to take back control the better to keep turning the crank. Better still, if they can get you to put your shoulder to the crank by telling you how awful these foreign regulations are (it’s all ’ straight bananas’ and ‘health and safety gone mad’) they will do so, and get you singing the national anthem while they’re at it.

Mrs Thatcher used to say ‘there is no alternative’ to the rule of the market – the crank economy. Right-wing populism appeared, at first glance, to offer just such an alternative, in the form of so called ‘economic nationalism’. But judging by Mr Trump’s emphasis on cutting social security and doling out tax breaks to the rich, this is no real alternative at all, more an attempt to confine the crank within more easily controlled borders.

So what is the alternative? Global economic democracy.

But to discuss that, we’ll have to wait for another post.

Maurice Macartney

28 March 2017


Progressive pragmatism as a response to uncertain times

In the last of our series on the Assembly Election of 2017 Jenny Muir sets out the case for a progressive pragmatism built around broad and shifting partnerships, and aimed at achieving specific goals.

As hope fades of a new Executive being formed next week, and another election may be called, where does the (previous) election leave progressive politics?

The increased turnout, from 55 per cent to 65 per cent, should be welcomed. Yes, some may have voted in response to scaremongering from the DUP or a revitalised Sinn Féin election machine hoping to take the party over the line to the First Minister job. But getting people to the ballot box is the first step towards electoral change. We cannot get people to vote differently if they are not prepared to vote at all.

So how did people vote? Pretty much the same as before, according to vote share: unionists lost only 0.7 per cent; ‘others’ (Alliance, Greens and People Before Profit) gained 1.5 per cent and nationalists gained 3.8 per cent. The seat share tells a slightly a different story, and it’s the seats that matter. The reduction from 180 to 90 hit unionists hardest, with a 7.4 per cent decrease; ‘others’ increased their share by 1.2 per cent. The big winners were nationalists, with a 6.3 per cent increase. The breakdown of 40 unionists (including the TUV and Claire Sugden), 39 nationalists and 11 ‘others’ does indeed remove the unionist majority for the first time. But the election statistics also show that the ‘other’ parties are still failing to make the kind of gains that might seriously challenge the communal blocs.

It’s particularly interesting that this continues to be the case when  40 per cent of us identify as neither unionist or nationalist, compared to 33 per cent unionist and 25 per cent nationalist. Of course there are many reasons why people vote the way they do, and also reasons why people with progressive views might join a communal party. All parties are coalitions to some extent, and if your party’s ideological basis is British or Irish nationalism, then there will be room for a wide range of other beliefs within the membership. Individuals from different parties can and do work together in the Assembly to advance particular causes. It is also important to ask how this work can be done elsewhere, for example in local councils and in single issue campaigns.

So… what should we be working on, whom should we be working with, and how should we be working together?

What?  At The Combination have defined progressive values as including social justice, equality, democracy, nonviolence and sustainability.  Stephen has listed marriage equality, abortion rights, trade union rights, equalities issues and environmental protection as topics around which progressives can make alliances. Other possibilities include education, health and housing. Basically there is no shortage of issues where common ground may be found across parties and between political activists and civil society campaigners.

Who?  Many of us have mixed experiences of interaction with other parties, but will recall working together in trade unions and single issue campaigns as a matter of course, in order to maximise the chance of achieving change. The difficult and unwelcome truth about progressives working together is that we are going to agree on some issues and not on others. For example, it’s proving easier to build a coalition on equal marriage than on abortion. There is a sticking point on ‘integrated’ versus ‘shared’ education. Health campaigning is very fragmented. So our partners in particular single issue campaigns and initiatives will differ. To me there is no question that these partners will include members of the communal parties in some instances.

How?  In Northern Ireland we are disadvantaged by the lack of a non-party structure for progressive politics, such as a think tank or a broad-based civil society campaigning organisation. There are very few non-partisan forums for political debate, especially to promote the kind of constructive discussions that explore and understand different views on controversial topics – essential to develop the trust Tanya talks about, and the finding of common ground and willingness to compromise noted by Stephen. New spaces for progressive debate and collaboration must be developed as a matter of urgency.

And the game changes completely once an election is called. Formal pacts are superficially attractive, however they present two major difficulties: each party to the agreement must benefit; and the identity or independence of the parties involved must not be eroded. This is almost impossible to achieve. Far better for local campaigners to indicate informally how they would like preference votes to be cast, and to leave the electorate to make up their own minds.

A politics of progressive pragmatism can be developed around broad and doubtless shifting partnerships to achieve specific goals, and a continuing free for all at the ballot box. It sounds like an extremely modest aspiration. But it’s better than what we have now – and will be needed more than ever in the next few years.


Jenny Muir

22 March 2017

The necessity of trust

To navigate the many complex, multi-faceted problems we face in this so-called ‘post-truth’ world, a shrug of distrust is not enough. We are going to need to rely on all our accumulated knowledge and wisdom, argues Tanya Jones, in the third of our Assembly election posts.

Tanya’s feet do the talking at the Climate Justice event in Paris, December 2015

There are two kinds of stories for progressives about this year’s Assembly election. Maurice and Stephen have told two of the hopeful ones. As a candidate in the demographically knife-edge constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone, I’m perhaps more pessimistic. Those small green shoots pushing through the snow are undoubtedly there, but nurturing them will be a hard task.

I begin in the same place as Stephen, with Mike Nesbitt’s comments about vote transfers, which, whatever their effect upon the vote itself, apparently constituted his own political death warrant.

But what was so egregiously outrageous about what he actually said? Contrary to the impression widely given, Nesbitt did not recommend that Ulster Unionist voters give their immediate post-UUP preferences to the SDLP. He said that he intended to do so himself, but advised others only to transfer to any candidate they trusted to deliver for their “community, constituency and country”.

On the face of it, this sounds so anodyne as to be the political equivalent of a Hallmark greetings card. What other criterion could possibly have a higher priority than trust? And the ambiguous placing of ‘community’ at the head of the alliterative list even looks like a nod towards keeping those transfers largely unionist. In a Northern Ireland context, my ‘community’ might mean the village, town or suburb where I live, but it’s more likely, as Maurice discussed last week, to mean the group of people who share my religious, cultural and political preconceptions.

But, far from the yawn appropriate to Sunday afternoon platitudes, Nesbitt’s comment was greeted, even from within his own party, with howls of outrage. Here in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, the UUP was quick to distance itself, advising its voters via Twitter to transfer to other ‘pro-union’ candidates. The content of the advice is explicable, of course, in view of the unionist pact for the 2015 Westminster election which enabled Tom Elliott to overturn Michelle Gildernew’s four vote majority.   The fact that it jarred so glaringly with the rest of the overwhelmingly anti-DUP Twitter feed didn’t seem to surprise anyone.

The odd thing is that, logically, this election ought to have been about precisely the issue of trust. At the heart of the RHI scandal were a lack of transparency and a failure of good governance. It was that betrayal of citizens’ trust, along with the breakdown of trust between the two Executive parties, which caused the election in the first place. But that very soon wasn’t the issue. Neither coalition partner wanted too strong a light to be shone on any aspect of the scandal, from the secrecy of political donations to the dysfunctional relationships between departments and ministers. Instead of ‘trust’ or any of its synonyms, the buzzword chosen by Sinn Fein was ‘respect’, and that played perfectly into the DUP’s hands.

‘I don’t trust you’, is a banal statement of fact, but ‘You’re disrespecting me,’ has an edge of combined victimhood and aggression that worked both to prod nationalists towards the polling station and to goad disaffected DUP supporters back into the fold. And it worked for any issue they chose, most effectively that of the Irish language.

‘Same old, same old,’ say the weary. But there is now a new dimension to the traditional tribalism of Northern Ireland. Only ten months separated the 2016 and 2017 Assembly elections, but those ten months included both the UK’s EU referendum and the election of President Donald Trump. I’m wary of sentences that begin ‘This vote meant…’, for people voted for both Brexit and Trump in smaller numbers, and for more varied reasons than any tidy explanation allows. I think it’s safe to say, though, that a mistrust of perceived establishments, elites and experts played a large part in the rhetoric underpinning both campaigns. The fact that Trump and the triumphal triumvirate of Farage Johnson and Gove are members of all the elite and establishment groups that matter only seemed to bolster their credibility.

It’s a credibility, though, that doesn’t necessarily imply trust. A traditional political polarity will say ‘My opponent is devious, flaky and possibly corrupt, but you can rely on me.’ But these new populists present themselves as mavericks, and their indiscretions, insensitivities and worse are all presented as refreshing evidence of their salt-of-the-earthiness. ‘Follow me,’ they say. ‘I don’t know any better than you where we’re going, but we’ll find someone to kick along the way.’ It’s a style that’s easy and infectious, requiring nothing so tedious as policy, and was used in the Assembly election campaign by both right and left, with ‘Drain the Swamp’, ‘Punish Stormont’ and ‘Elect A Fighter’ prominent on our lampposts.

A post-truth world, as we are reported to be living in, is perhaps necessarily also a post-trust world.

And the implications of that are terrifying. There are times and places when it wouldn’t matter very much, where societies are chugging along much as they always have, and a bit of iconoclasm is positively healthy. Even now, there are plenty of power systems, notably the financial and military, about which we aren’t sufficiently sceptical. But to trust virtually no scientists, no politicians, no lawyers, no economists and no historians, except those who peddle our own pet conspiracy theories, is to take from ourselves every tool with which we might build a better future. And in our global village, with even the liberal media fascinated and obsessed by emergent fascism, there seems little hope of containing the infection.

We face two* huge existential threats: domestic, in the massive shadow of the looming Brexit, and global, from the increasing certainty of catastrophic climate change. (*The uncontrolled belligerence of a nuclear-armed Trump is a potential third that even I, in this gloom-ridden mood, can’t quite bring myself to mention outside parentheses.)

The almost universal response to both has been to stick our heads firmly into the sand, occasionally surfacing to shout ‘Project Fear!’ before burrowing down again. But these are not remote eventualities that might possibly occur, or benign changes that can be dealt with by business as usual, calm-down-dearie and not frightening the horses. These are complex, multi-faceted, many-tentacled problems. In order to navigate them with any kind of success at all, we will need everything we as human beings have ever learned, about science, about ethics and about our own history. To dismiss all that accumulated knowledge and wisdom in favour of a shrug of the shoulders and a gut instinct would be the final confirmation of the Age of Stupid. This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a snarky tweet.

But there are signs of hope, some of which have already been identified and explored on this site. A blind fatalism is as unhelpful as any other kind of darkness. In between writing the first and second drafts of this piece, the exit polls came in from the Dutch elections, showing a decline in support for the much-vaunted Geert Wilders and a surge for GroenLinks.   I was joyfully reminded that right-wing populism isn’t globally inevitable, that people aren’t necessarily insular and despairing and that a small patch of hope can spread a long way. And I started reading the paperback edition of Yanis Varoufakis’s And The Weak Suffer What They Must? in the foreword of which he writes of the ‘precious common ground’ shared by all those, whatever their political labels, who are ready to confront the ‘monsters … crawling out of the fault lines’.

And there are answers, at least partial ones, and dedicated, creative and informed people working hard to reach them. But it does need trust; not unthinking allegiance to any individual or institution, but a lively, questioning, thoughtful understanding of what history, science and experience can teach us, allied with a basic belief in human goodwill. It won’t be easy, but we’ve already begun, thousands of us, across the world and across the years.

Tanya Jones, 17 March 2017

A progressive agenda

Homage to the ‘Fearless Girl’ of Wall Street.

In the second of our series on the Northern Ireland Assembly elections of 2017 Stephen Baker asks if it is possible to combine progressive forces across party and denominational lines.

Mike Nesbitt’s ill-fated attempt to inspire cross-party, cross community cooperation was laudable, but it broke on the back of the conservativism of many in his party. It begs the question: would the efforts of progressives to find forms of cross-party cooperation fare any better? Maybe.

One of the great hopes of the peace process and political agreement was that it would create the space for what are euphemistically known as ‘bread and butter’ politics. But more than this, many yearned for a settlement that would open the door to the sort of progressive politics that could speak to questions of gender, sexuality, race, class and the environment – the issues that get side-lined and ignored when the public debate is dominated by communal and constitutional issues.

Almost 20 years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, progressives can say that they have brought something fresh to the political conversation in Northern Ireland but they can’t claim to have changed it. And now there is a grave danger that unionism, wounded by the loss of its majority, and a simultaneously emboldened nationalism, will subordinate all other political issues to their respective constitutional causes.

Nevertheless, there are plenty in the North of Ireland who, whatever their constitutional preferences, consider themselves progressives. They may for historical (and often biographical reasons) find themselves spread across a variety of political parties – parties that are not all uniformly progressive, or progressive at all. Yet if those individuals are committed to human rights, social justice, equality and environmental sustainability, then maybe the Assembly provides a space where on occasions national and party allegiance can take second place to advancing progressive causes.

A progressive agenda could include the determination to see marriage equality, the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland, repeal of anti-trade union legislation, updating the laws protecting racial and ethnic minorities and legislation around environmental protection – to build, as Maurice indicated in the previous post, the sort of place both they and others are happy to live in.

Is it conceivable that enlightened MLAs, in all parties, nationalist, unionist and other, could commit themselves to support and fight for these causes within their own constituencies, the Assembly and wider civic society?

The passage of Steven Agnew’s Children’s Services Co-operation Bill into legislation in 2015 perhaps offers a model of how a private members bill can progress through the Assembly and into law. Legislation around gender, sexuality, trade unions and the environment is going to be more controversial. But the principle of slowly building support, researching and refining the legislation is the same.

That is not to say that a progressive agenda wouldn’t face challenges. For instance, at election time cross-party cooperation will be strain by electoral competition. Also, internal party discipline may prohibit the wholehearted participation of individuals in such an agenda. And we should never underestimate the determination of conservative colleagues to scupper the best efforts, and indeed careers, of others not attuned to their own reactionary beliefs.

Some representatives may be more progressive on some issues than others – happy to promote marriage equality but drawing a line at reform of abortion legislation, for instance.

Relations between the workers’ movement and those with environmental concerns is not straightforward or without tensions. But it is worth bearing in mind that progressive politics is dependent upon solidarity – all for one and one for all!

Our capacity to advance our own concerns may be dependent upon our willingness to find common ground with others and move beyond our own ‘single issue’. And in the end, compromise may mean that we don’t all get what we want, but progressive solidarity may mean we get just enough of what we need to take the Northern Ireland forward and make it a better place to live in.


Stephen Baker

12 March 2017

The three communities

The most significant result of the NI Assembly Election 2017, argues Maurice Macartney, is that it marks the beginning of the end of the dominance of the ‘two communities’ model of Northern Ireland. From here on, we will have to take the ‘community of others’ into account.

The Northern Ireland Assembly election (AE17) has turned out to be a very significant event.

It was always going to be interesting, given that the number of seats in the Assembly had been reduced from 108 to 90. In a context of widespread anger over the botched RHI scheme and other scandals, the outcome was always going to be hard to call.

In the event, the DUP, whose campaign repeatedly (almost catechistically) warned of the danger of a “Gerry-Adams-Sinn-Féin-radical-agenda”, lost most, ending up with 28 seats.  That’s fully ten down on last year’s total, more than the six they would have lost had the reduction in seats been distributed evenly. Moreover, they are now only one seat ahead of Sinn Féin, who enjoyed the biggest surge in first-preference votes, numerically speaking, of any of the parties. Doubtless the DUP communications team will spin this as a ‘we told you so’ story.

However they spin it, though, having won under 30 seats, the DUP have lost their ability to veto anything they don’t like (and there’s a lot they don’t like) by means of the ‘Petition of Concern’ mechanism. They will have to rely on others if they are to block legislation that way.

And speaking of ‘others’, in my view this may prove, in the long term, the most significant development of the lot: neither unionists nor nationalists command a majority of seats in the Assembly. In other words, we no longer have a ‘majority’ and a ‘minority’ community (oh, and a few oddballs grouped under the relatively insignificant heading ‘Other’).

Politically speaking, Northern Ireland can no longer be reduced to ‘the two communities’ (and how often that misleading phrase has been repeated like a catechism). You could say Northern Ireland is now made up of three minority communities (though we’ll come back to that).

Breaking down the first preference votes won’t give the unionists their psychologically significant majority status either. By my calculation (and you can find the data here), they took about 45 per cent of first preference votes among them, if you include a few thousand for independents. SF and the SDLP took about 40 per cent – 41 per cent if you include the Workers Party and again a few thousand for independents.

But look at the parties who are avowedly neither nationalist nor unionist: for the first time, their combined support shot past the 100,000 mark – between 13 and 14 per cent of the total, even without adding any independents.

The Alliance Party must be incredibly happy to see their first preference votes surge from 48,447 last year to 72,717 (actually proportionally, though not numerically, a bigger rise than SF’s). The Green Party can be happy that, though their total first preference votes went down a bit elsewhere, they rose significantly in their two key constituencies, resulting in both their MLAs being returned, and netting a province-wide total of over 18,500 first preference votes.

AE17 in numbers

Even People Before Profit, though they lost one of their pair of MLAs, can comfort themselves that their first preference votes went up by a few hundred.

Of course all this is in the context of a bigger turnout as compared to 2016. Nonetheless, in the long term, a haul of votes of more than 108,000 for parties designating as ‘Other’ – that is, explicitly non-unionist, non-nationalist parties – is something of a milestone.

From here on, these three communities – unionists, nationalists, and the community of others – are going to have to figure out how to live as minorities together. In particular, unionists are going to have to recognise that, having lost majority status, if they are to succeed in their own aim of defending the union, they will have to pay heed to the aims of those for whom the question of the border is not the overriding priority.  They will have to learn to make Northern Ireland the sort of place the community of others are happy to live in, and that nationalists do not feel alienated by. And of course something similar can be said for nationalists.

The community of others, having been marginalised for decades simply for trying to hold open a space beyond the ‘two communities’ conflict, at last has a little leverage.

The sort of elbows-out politics, the obstinate insistence that ‘majority community’ status confers the right to dominance, aside from being a basic misunderstanding of democracy from the outset, simply will not work where you are not in a clear majority. And as the community of others continues to grow it is bound to inject a new dynamic into our politics. Doubtless some will react with hostility to that new dynamic – so it will be important for the ‘others’ to be open and respectful, ready to listen to, and work with unionists (or indeed nationalists) to address real problems. But then, openness and respect for difference is what the community of others is all about, or ought to be. Diversity, otherness, is at the heart of such a community. Indeed, it is what all community as such is, or ought to be, about.

Truth to tell, there has always been a community of others in Northern Ireland, or indeed many such communities – LGBTQ, feminist, disabled, environmentalist, minority ethnic groups, other religious groups, and many more; people whose key priorities are not defined by national ‘allegiance’, but by a desire to live in a society of equals, where health care, education, decent, sustainable jobs are the main issues.

There never were two and only two communities, no matter what endless news reports, academic studies and official forms told us. There were and are many communities coming into existence, evolving, dissolving, merging, emerging.

Because a community is not a group of people who are all the same. Community is what happens when different people get together.

Maybe, just maybe, the results of this election will provide an opportunity for us to learn, for all our differences, to live as a whole collage of minorities together.

Maurice Macartney

6 March 2017

(Updated 7 March 2017)

Changing the debate

“Where smaller parties tread, the larger ones often follow”. Stephen Baker calls out the BBC for their failure to include smaller parties in their leaders’ election debates in the run up to the Assembly election.  

The exclusion of smaller parties like the Greens and People Before Profit from the BBC’s planned leader’s election debate is politically myopic and blinkered. Both parties made breakthroughs at the last Assembly election, with South Belfast returning Northern Ireland’s second Green MLA, Clare Bailey, and PBP’s Gerry Carroll and Eamonn McCann winning in West Belfast and Foyle, respectively. These results may be indicative of a genuine, growing appetite for change. The Renewable Heat Incentive scandal and the collapsing of the executive may only have increased that appetite. The BBC should keep all this in mind as the plan and schedule their coverage of this election.

A cursory look at the recent history of Northern Ireland shows that where smaller parties tread, the larger ones often follow. It was often so-called fringe parties that helped to change the tone and content of political debate in Northern Ireland. It was also they who had the courage and imagination to push towards a political settlement when larger parties were obstinate and slothful. For instance, we should not underestimate the intellectual work done in the prisons at a time when republicans and loyalists were subject to a broadcasting ban. Figures such as David Ervine and his colleagues in the Progressive Unionist Party demonstrated a willingness to get into negotiations with opponents when mainstream unionists looked incapable of meeting that challenge. The DUP in particular walked out of negotiations and it was involved in a very public and angry exchange with working class loyalists who stayed in the process that lead to the Good Friday Agreement. In May 2007 the DUP entered into a power-sharing executive with Sinn Féin. Similarly, the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition put the question of women’s political representation onto the agenda and for their pains were frequently mocked and brayed at by male counterparts. Today three main parties, the DUP, Sinn Fein and Alliance, are led by women.

Even on the pages of a progressive journal like The Combination, we have to acknowledge that Jim Allister of the TUV has often provided an articulate and forensic voice of opposition in an Assembly full of apparent placemen. Allister is an incumbent of what the media patronisingly dubbed the ‘naughty corner’, an honour he shares with the Green Party’s Steven Agnew (and, since last year, fellow-Green Clare Bailey, as well as the two PBP MLAs). It was Agnew who first flagged up problems with the RHI scheme as long ago as July 2013, when others were cheerleading the project or simply not paying sufficient attention. It is often the voices in the margins that have the independence of mind and spirit to see what others are wilfully blind to. At this stage I’m reminded of something Tony Benn used to say: “It’s the same each time with progress. First they ignore you, then they say you’re mad, then dangerous, then there’s a pause and then you can’t find anyone who disagrees with you.”

In excluding these voices the BBC might say its job is to reflect society, and that this is best achieved by focusing upon the larger parties, whose size in the Assembly might recommend them as more representative of public opinion. But neither the BBC nor the media more generally reflects society, and it certainly isn’t the BBC’s job to do anything so pusillanimous. Media representations are integral to the very constitution of society, because they offer frameworks through which people think about the world around them, act in the world and experience it. In other words, media coverage and news reporting do not stand apart from the political process, they are part and parcel of it. If the media’s frame is truncated and exclusive, then that in all likelihood that will encourage a truncated and exclusive politics. If you confine debate to shades of unionism and nationalism (and whatever lies between) you are not merely reflecting an existing reality, you are it reproducing it. Most alarmingly, you are reproducing it at the expensive of other politics such as those of class, gender, sexuality and the environment.

To be fair, journalists clearly don’t see it as their job to simply sustain the status quo. Certainly there are local journalists that have done us all a tremendous democratic service by rigorously investigating political scandals like the RHI scheme. But when it comes to elections, different rules and criteria seem to take over – caution, at the moment to be bold; overt pragmatism, that has no ears for idealism; a determination to identify a centre or consensus about what the key issues are, when many are rejecting the agenda set by mainstream politicians; and damn laziness, that just can’t be bothered to think of a broadcasting format that would accommodate the existing breadth of political opinion. These last two points are important because globally we are evidently living through a period when there is no political consensus – the centre has collapsed. The narrow ground upon which political debate was conducted for decades has exploded and we can barely discern the shape of things to come. And yet, Northern Ireland’s ‘dreary steeples’ have a reputation for remaining impervious to “the deluge of the world”. It is not the BBC’s responsibility to uphold them. It has a responsibility to question, to probe, expand, to experiment, to let the world in.

Giving a platform to the same-old-same-old at this election feels like an abnegation of the BBC’s civic responsibility. To be sure, the BBC has a history of supineness but it also has a stated commitment to a public service ethos that desperately needs refreshed. Because if public service broadcasting is the very lifeblood of democracy, then recent events suggest that Northern Ireland’s politics is badly in need of a transfusion… and maybe an organ transplant or two.

Stephen Baker

21 February 2017


And how!

In the second of two Assembly Election posts, we set out how to go about maximising the impact of your STV choices.

On 2 March 2017 voters in Northern Ireland will get the chance to cast votes for their local Assembly members (MLAs). But like a lot of things in Northern Irish politics, it’s a bit more complicated than it sounds.

In this election, run according to the Single Transferrable Vote (STV) system you don’t put an X beside your preferred candidate. Instead, you number your candidates in order of preference: 1, 2, 3 and so on. Many people only number their top two or three and leave the rest blank.

But is this such a good idea? No. You should list candidates in the order you prefer – and carry on all the way down!

A good tip is to number your top preferences first, put your least favourite at the bottom, and then work towards the middle. It’s best to count the number of candidates first, just so that you get your numbers correct. Better still, find out from your local paper or the BBC NI website who is standing in your constituency and have a practice run beforehand.

Why go to all this trouble?

Because STV is a preferential system. You are indicating a higher preference for certain candidates in relation to others – and in relation to the preferences of other voters.

With STV, those tallying the votes have to go through several rounds of counting until all the seats are filled in each constituency. So if you don’t set out your complete set of preferences, then someone else’s preferences will prevail over yours at the later counts.

This can make quite a difference, as the number of votes needed to get a seat in the later counting rounds will be lowered, making it easier for a candidate to get the fifth place – by this time they don’t have to meet the quota.

And you should put the smaller parties higher up your list. If the smaller party doesn’t get enough high preferences to avoid elimination in the early rounds of vote counting, then they won’t be able to pick up their lower preferences and claim the fourth or fifth seat.  If they do get knocked out in round one, on the other hand, your vote transfers in full to your second choice.

Finally, of course, we would say vote for the most progressive candidates in your area. Let’s remind our representatives that we want equality, sustainability, transparency, strong public services, and a politics geared towards the common good.

So vote progressive, vote small parties first, and vote all the way down!


Jenny Muir and Maurice Macartney

14 February 2017

Why vote?

In the first of two posts on why we should vote, and how to go about it, Jenny Muir argues that one person alone may not be able to make history, but a community can. So read this, then make sure you REGISTER by 14 February!

Be sure you are registered by Tuesday 14 February!

In this unexpected Assembly election it’s proving harder than ever to persuade voters to go to the polls. Voter apathy is not new, but, as noted previously,  it’s worrying to see a constant decline over the years: from 70 per cent turnout in 1998, the first Assembly elections, to 54 per cent in May 2016. Even in the EU Referendum, with a turnout of 72 per cent across the UK, in Northern Ireland only 63 per cent of us bothered to vote. All a far cry from the 81 per cent who turned out for the referendum on the Good Friday/ Belfast Agreement.

Those of us who have canvassed know the voters are fed up. They feel powerless and lack trust in politicians. People ask: how can one vote make a difference?

And the truth is, one vote almost always doesn’t. But the aggregate of votes does, and that’s what those of us who work in elections see and most people don’t – and find hard to believe. The wonderful Love NI Vote NI helps us by providing the figures from the last Assembly election in May 2016: 540,018 people gave a first preference vote to the DUP, Sinn Féin, the UUP or the SDLP. But 577,851 did not come out to vote – more than the number who voted for the ‘big four’ parties!

It’s also untrue that change never happens. The DUP and Sinn Féin have not always been our largest two parties. Alliance have substantially consolidated their vote in East Belfast since 2007. South Belfast’s Green vote has risen steadily over the same period, resulting in the election of Clare Bailey last year.  People Before Profit probably surprised themselves at topping the West Belfast poll at the same election with around 40 per cent more votes than their nearest rival. A vote for a smaller party is by no means a wasted vote.

Voting is the perfect example of how one person can’t make history but a community can.

Finally, it’s important to understand the voting system to make the best use of your vote – so we’ll set that out in our next post!

Jenny Muir

13 February 2017