Posts Tagged ‘Northern Ireland’

Irish reunification will land in our next Prime Minister’s in-tray

26/10/2017, 10:34:57 PM

by Kevin Meagher

Given the not inconsiderable amount of flak that Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have both received for their views on Northern Ireland, it is perhaps not surprising that ne’er a pipsqueak has been uttered by either of them on the subject in recent times.

But the prospect of a Labour Government requires some hard thinking about how Labour will approach Northern Ireland. It is no longer enough to coast along issuing bromides about the Good Friday Agreement.

There will be no escaping Northern Ireland in the next parliament, particularly as its shifting demography means it’s now a racing certainty that its constitutional status will be brought into question.

An opinion poll this week asked 18-44 year olds whether they wanted to ‘leave’ and become part of a single Irish state or ‘remain’ in the UK.  Fifty-six per cent wanted to live in a united Ireland and just 34 per cent opted for the status quo. Irish reunification is a medium-term reality.

In response, Labour needs to do three things.

First, the party should do everything possible to help restore the devolved institutions. Government efforts at doing so, following the collapse of the executive back in January, have been faltering – to put it delicately. What has been a problem throughout 2017 is now metastasising into a full-blown crisis.

This follows revelations that Arlene Foster, in her previous role as enterprise minister back in 2012, botched the implemented of a renewable heating subsidy that is set to stack up a £500 million liability for the Northern Ireland Executive. A judge-led inquiry is currently investigating.

The Northern Ireland Secretary, the aptly-named James Brokenshire, lacks credibility and has struggled to set out a convincing way forward. He recently warned Northern Ireland was on a ‘glide path’ back to Direct Rule from Whitehall unless a breakthrough can be made. It’s an epithet that also sums up his dismal tenure in the role.

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Their deal with the Tories is an Indian Summer. Winter is coming for the DUP

16/07/2017, 10:02:43 PM

by Kevin Meagher

‘Fashions change but style remains’, Coco Chanel was said to have remarked, (somewhat incongruously for a fashion designer). The point is germane to Northern Ireland. Don’t draw big conclusions from immediate contemporaneous events. Stand back and look at the wider picture. Ignore passing fashions.

There is an emerging narrative that the DUP is on the up after the hiatus of the Renewable Heat Incentive fiasco at the start of the year, the subsequent resignation and untimely death of Martin McGuinness and Sinn Fein’s surge in March’s elections to the Northern Ireland assembly.

Arlene Foster is still standing, winning two extra parliamentary seats in the recent general election and has managed to strong-arm a generous financial deal out of Theresa May’s weak and wobbly government in return for backing it on tight votes.

She is on top – so the argument goes – having wrong-footed her opponents, most notably Sinn Fein, whose policy of abstentionism and self-removal from the parliamentary fray contrasts unfavourably with the DUP’s realpolitik in making Westminster bend to its will.

It’s a fashionable argument, by which I mean it is entirely wrong.

Take a step back.

The gap between parties supporting Irish unity and those wishing to maintain the constitutional status quo with Britain was as close as 30,000 votes in elections to the assembly back in March. Unionism is in long-term decline, standing on a burning electoral and demographic platform.

Already, a majority of Northern Ireland’s under-35s are Catholic, providing Unionists with an impossible medium-term challenge in fending off Irish unity. Given Sinn Fein is not calling for a border poll for the next five years, there is ample scope to construct a majority for change by the mid-2020s, now the prospect is truly out in the open and the benefits of reunification are widely discussed.

For Unionism, winter is coming.

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The breakdown in Northern Ireland’s talks is an avoidable mess

06/07/2017, 06:29:30 PM

by Kevin Meagher

As they say in Belfast, the dogs in the street could see there was no prospect of a deal to restore power-sharing in Northern Ireland. The ‘gaps’ between the parties that James Brokenshire, the beleaguered Northern Ireland secretary told the House of Commons on Monday could be bridged have proven to be rather larger than he – and he alone it seems – assumed.

The talks have failed for three reasons. First, the Democratic Unionists’ deal with the Conservatives means there is no leverage exerted by Downing Street or the Northern Ireland Office over the DUP, which is standing four-square against the implementation of an Irish language act – the central bone of contention between them and Sinn Fein – which they claim to oppose on grounds of cost, rather than base prejudice. (Honest).

Having lavished one billion pounds in new money on Northern Ireland just last week  – and guaranteed another £1.5 billion in underwriting the costs of measures like next year’s proposed corporation tax cut – a relatively small amount of funding on the Irish language is a drop in the Irish Sea. Moreover, it’s a perfectly sensible and entirely justifiable proposition given Wales has enjoyed similar legislation since 1993.

Second, the timing was awful. Expecting a deal a week out from the 12th July shows Brokenshire doesn’t even have an elementary grasp of the physics of Northern Ireland. There will be no compromise while loyalists are piling wooden crates 60 feet high with effigies of the Pope and Gerry Adams hanging from nooses. Next week is the high point of the ‘marching season’ where bonfires will be lit in commemoration of the 1690 Battle of the Boyne, where William III defeated King James I. (Nuance is lost of these occasions, as William was backed by the Pope).

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British politics needs to start planning for the day Northern Ireland ceases to exist

11/04/2017, 09:44:48 PM

by Kevin Meagher

Nineteen years ago this week, Tony Blair, Mo Mowlam, Bertie Ahern the Irish Taoiseach and the various political parties were in the final stages of agreeing what became the Belfast Agreement, better known, given the day it was finalised, as the Good Friday Agreement.

It was a triumph for all involved and, whatever else his critics point to, Blair’s crowning achievement; a superb piece of leadership and political tradecraft.

It was a deal that ensured cross-community power-sharing and a devolved assembly.

The end of the British Army’s presence in Northern Ireland and the release of paramilitary prisoners.

Strengthened east-west links between the Irish and British governments and north-south bodies to create all-Ireland institutions.

It is a deal that has provided two decades of relative peace and normality and become a lodestar in the field of conflict resolution.

But the Good Friday Agreement settlement is now faltering.

The collapse of the power-sharing executive in January, (following Arlene Foster’s woeful handling of a £500m heating subsidy), Sinn Fein’s strengthened mandate in the subsequent assembly elections and the current difficulty with restoring the executive are testing its resilience as a model.

The broader truth is that the Good Friday Agreement was never meant to last. It was always a stop-gap solution. An interregnum. A transition space between the conflict of the Troubles and the advent, eventually, of a unified Irish state.

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Uncut Review: A United Ireland, why unification is inevitable and how it will come about, by Kevin Meagher

20/03/2017, 10:22:09 PM

by Jonathan Todd

“Before there was a United Nations, before there was a United States, before there was a united anything, there was a United Kingdom.”

Bob Geldof delivered these rousing words to a rally in Trafalgar Square in 2014, organised to encourage Scotland to stay in the UK.

Will #indyref2 also see similar English outpourings of fraternal expression toward Scotland?

There must be more risk this time around that England shrugs its shoulders. Certainly, in the event of a referendum in Northern Ireland on its status within the UK, it is hard to imagine Unionist rallies springing up on mainland Britain.

“Where Scotland is seen to be an opportunity worth holding on to,” writes Kevin Meagher in A United Ireland, why unification is inevitable and how it will come about, “Northern Ireland is quietly regarded as a problem eventually worth jettisoning.”

Britain, as Meagher titles a chapter, is just not that into Northern Ireland. Whatever affinity the English retain for Scotland, it dwarfs Northern Ireland kinship – a place that feels faraway, with alien customs and obsessions.

Opinion in Northern Ireland itself, not on the mainland, will determine its future. Meagher assembles the economic evidence that it would be richer within the Republic of Ireland. And the stark divergence in social attitudes between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. In spite of these economic and social drivers, there remains, of course, a majority community in Northern Ireland defined by loyalty to the UK.

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Brokenshire has been a spectator, not a participant during Northern Ireland collapse

25/01/2017, 11:23:00 AM

by Kevin Meagher

James Brokenshire has an unfortunate surname for a man who presides over the collapse of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, in office for barely seven months, has not exactly covered himself in glory thus far.

Last week, he was obliged to announce fresh elections to the 90-member Northern Ireland Assembly following the collapse of the cross-community executive, triggered by Martin McGuinness’s resignation as deputy First Minister.

The row centres on Democratic Unionist First Minister Arlene Foster’s quite ridiculous refusal to step aside and make way for an investigation into the £500m Renewable Heat Incentive fiasco she was responsible for in her previous post as enterprise minister.

The ‘burn to earn’ scheme saw massive payments to encourage companies to switch to wood pellet boilers, entitling them to make vast sums for heating empty properties.

Last week, police in South Armagh raided an empty heated barn assuming it was a drug factory.

Brokenshire finds himself tasked with picking up the pieces.

Yet this crisis is the result of a classic, almost textbook slow-motion political collision.

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If NI was Westminster, Arlene Foster would already be a political corpse

20/12/2016, 05:23:30 PM

by Kevin Meagher

Northern Ireland is a place apart, we all know that much. Normal rules don’t apply. Things are done differently. Political gravity, as we understand it, doesn’t hold.

Or perhaps it didn’t. If there was any justice, the phrase ‘First Minister Arlene Foster’ would already be written in the past tense. The scandal Mrs Foster finds herself embroiled in – the fallout from the anodyne-sounding Renewable Heat Incentive – is a proper Grade A political scandal.

If this was Westminster, she would be politically dead and buried.

The Renewable Heat Incentive, launched in 2012 while Foster was enterprise minister, was a cut-down version of British scheme to subsidise non-domestic customers – farms and businesses – in switching to wooden pellet-burning biomass boilers instead of oil.

The fairly elementary flaw in Northern Ireland’s version was a lack of cost controls. As the Auditor General succinctly put it, there was ‘no upper limit on the amount of energy that would be paid for. The more heat that is generated, the more is paid.’

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Thatcher’s rotten government was only interested in discord and division

31/12/2015, 10:29:17 AM

by Kevin Meagher

It’s not just the low-fi racism of Oliver Letwin’s 1985 memo to Margaret Thatcher that appalls. His dismissal of the “bad moral attitudes” of young Black men following the Broadwater Farm riots also reflects ministerial contempt towards so many other groups throughout that dismal decade.

Conservative politics in the mid-1980s was about as far from the ‘One Nation’ variant as it was possible to be. This was a government at war with large parts of the country it ran. Truly, an elective dictatorship, openly contemptuous of those that did not yield to its will.

So the “pampered Scots” were to be pitched against the “envious” north of England when it came to funding allocations. Black people were only interested in the “disco and drug trade”. Northern Ireland’s border towns should be bombed to stop republican suspects escaping to Southern Ireland.

As we well know, the miners were regarded as “the enemy within”. The entire city of Liverpool was to be subject to “managed decline” following the Toxteth riots, while the local football club’s fans were smeared in a vile cover-up over the deaths of 96 of their number at Hillsborough.

As the hapless Lewtin, possessor of an eager mind but dull wits, currently resides in political no-man’s land, waiting to see if his perfunctory apology is enough to sate the reaction against his comments, Tory strategists should perhaps ponder what other toxic memo-bombs he penned during his time running Thatcher’s policy unit. After all, this was the mid-80s, when she was at her wildest and the New Right policy wonks that fuelled her insurgency were unencumbered.

But aside from the trickle of released government papers of that time, we now also have Lowell Goddard’s wide-ranging inquiry into historic child abuse allegations. Just what will she unearth in the next few years about what ministers did or did not know in relation to the slew of allegations about that period?

What we do know is that all the invective and moral outrage directed towards Margaret Thatcher and her ministers during the 1980s was not wasted. We thought the Tories were a heartless, sneering bunch at the time.

Yesterday’s revelations now make that an evidence-based assessment.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut

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Corbyn and McDonnell are finding out why most politicians are all things to all people

25/09/2015, 04:07:32 PM

by Kevin Meagher

John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn are a pair of Philips screwdrivers. That’s not meant as a derogatory analogy (‘a pair of spanners’ etc) but merely to point out that, hitherto, during their long years as Members of Parliament, they have performed a single, unique function.

As “campaigning backbench MPs” of a type that Labour has a long tradition of indulging, they champion causes that are outside ‘safe’ political confines. This is not to everyone’s taste, clearly, and from time to time they will say something, or be photographed or share a platform with someone that gets them into trouble with the political mainstream.

But that’s fine; political parties need to be broad churches under first-past-the-post and reach out to as many people as possible. So, every once in a while, an issue that’s deemed to be beyond the pale today graduates into everyone’s favourite cause tomorrow. In this context, MPs of the kind Corbyn and McDonnell were can have a legitimate and sometimes useful role as a conduit to bring those outside in from the cold. (That said, whether they are visionaries, or merely contrarians, is moot).

I say were because a problem arises when you try to use a Philips screwdriver on the more familiar slot-headed screw. It’s an awkward fit. Actually, it doesn’t fit at all.  Like when you take “campaigning backbench MPs” and put them into the top two positions in the Labour party. All their previous views and associations are pored over and thrown back at them. Such is the price for rebels turned statesmen.

The issue has crystallised around John McDonnell’s explanation about why he spoke to a gathering of Irish republicans back in 2003, making the case that it was the IRA’s “bombs and bullets and sacrifice” that brought the British state to the negotiating table. Speaking on last week’s Question Time, he apologised for any offence caused by his remarks, arguing it was a genuine attempt to engage wary republicans and deter them from drifting away from the peace process at a critical time.

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The shadow of Northern Ireland looms over the last days of the referendum campaign

09/09/2014, 07:55:52 AM

by Kevin Meagher

There’s a fascinating essay in the current Demos Quarterly that looks at the various ethnicities in modern Scotland and how these cultural identities may impact on next Thursday’s vote on independence.

The study, written by Richard Webber from the Department of Geography at Kings College London and former chair of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, Trevor Philips, draws particular attention to the reaction of ethnically Irish Catholics in Scotland.

The authors reveal that it was much to their “surprise” that “the strongest majority support for independence was not among ‘pure’ historic Scots, but among people of Irish Catholic descent”.

Given Irish Catholic-heritage voters support Labour “more consistently than any other group in Scotland” why are many of them ignoring the party’s entreaties that we’re “Better Together” and opting for independence? As the authors point out:

“When one considers that electors from the same cultural heritage form the backbone of the Sinn Fein vote in West Belfast, this rejection of Labour’s position can be interpreted as a visceral opposition to the Union, to the Tory establishment and to Westminster. Thus ‘Yes’ voters among this group are likely to have very different motivations and to be expressing very different identities than the typical voter with an English or Welsh name; in fact they are supporting independence for the same reasons that they support Labour, a historic sense of oppression. What is significant is that the appeal of independence is driven more strongly by cultural and political considerations than socio-economic ones.”

Our middle class Westminster political and media elite, so utterly bewildered at the turn of events in recent days, simply don’t understand the power of identity and historical grievance in driving working class politics north of the border. (This is, of course, why none of them cares much about what goes on in Northern Ireland).

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