Saturday, 24 January 2009

Under Pressure

The conventional narrative is that the DUP and Sinn Féin are the two political parties inexorably on the rise in NI politics. This is why they arguably are not...

The DUP has arguably never been under so much pressure. Now seen in an inextricably linked coalition with Sinn Féin, to the extent where they have to share a joint office, it is arguably an impossibly toxic position for much of their electoral power base to support. The DUP, however are stuck there. Despite being the largest political party, they are potentially the most vulnerable.

By the 2011 Assembly Elections a vote for the DUP will no longer be a vote against Sinn Féin, or a vote to keep Sinn Féin down or out. It simply cannot be if it means the two parties, returned the largest in their respective communities, will enter into coalition.

But, both the DUP and Sinn Féin have no other alternative coalition partners apart from each other. Their very extremism leaves them only with each other. Hence the opportunity for the centre ground - where a strategy developed on meaningful engagement and a sense of proper power sharing could once again appeal to the majority of the electorate.

For the first time in a while I can see the potential for a centre ground fight back at the next Assembly Election. With something akin to some sort of proper strategy from the SDLP and UUP in 2011, could it really prove to be that the DUP and Sinn Féin have reached their electoral peak in NI?

SDLP Conference

I headed to Armagh for the SDLP Party Conference this weekend. Perhaps some of you who are reading this were there and are pondering my identity, well keep pondering... for that particular piece of information is not becoming exoteric for the moment!

Overall my assessment of the conference was mixed. I didn't see anything that made me think, yes the SDLP is on its way back, but I did think there were some glimmers of potential. Durkan's speech wasn't his best, but he did just about enough. Ritchie gave a decent account of the DUP/SF carve up failing the people of NI. The best speech, however, I thought came from European candidate Alban Maginness. A passion for Europe really came across and a well put together critique of the sitting MEPs showed he is certainly up for a fight. It did make me think for a second that he may actually stand a chance of getting elected... it was only for a second though (as I've blogged before the numbers just don't stack up in my opinion). I do at least think that Alban will garner the majority of transfers from the Alliance or 'unity' candidate now, instead of splitting them evenly with Jim Nicholson as appeared to happen between Martin Morgan and Nicholson in 2004. Maginness seems to be positioning himself more towards the centre ground, a sensible move to try and pick as many 'protestant Alliance' voters as possible.

The most moving part of the Conference was Paul Quinn's mother remembering her son and his brutal death in South Armagh, recounted at one of the fringe meetings. A truly memorable occasion that left many brushing the tears away from their eyes.

The main glimmers of hope for the party came, in my opinion, from a number of conversations with party delegates. There is a massive willingness to implement some of the lessons from the Obama campaign and bring in new techniques to engage with voters and increase membership. If the SDLP is brave and puts serious resources into this then they may be able to find the formula to reverse the trend of falling votes. The party has a future, but only if it can use new methods to re-engage the disengaged.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

So many names...

With the Assembly and Executive Review Committee's First Report into the devolution of policing and justice now through the Assembly and the realisation from some that there may still be a considerable amount of time before powers are transferred, the rumour mill up at Stormont as to who could be in line for the Justice Minister continues to revolve.

We can presume that the Minister will be elected on a cross community vote in the Assembly, given that this recommendation has now been passed. This essentially means it will be fall to whoever the DUP and Sinn Féin decide to support. As we know, both these parties have ruled themselves out of the running until 2012 when the sunset clause kicks in (the sunset clause is something that we might hear a lot about in the 2011 elections, I can see the TUV manifesto now, "the sun is setting on the DUP's justice plans" perhaps?).

The first rumour was that Alliance could be offered the job and a trio of names entered the fray: David Ford, Naomi Long and Stephen Farry. Of these Ford was the most likely; being leader of a small party and allowing a party colleague to take a ministerial position when offered is generally not considered a sensible political move. Now, however, the chatter has moved away from talk of Alliance, specifically after a marked relaxation in the Sinn Féin camp over a possible SDLP choice.

The SDLP long argued the position was rightfully theirs given they were next in line under d'hondt. Not strictly true in my opinion given that d'hondt could simply be run again from the start, guaranteeing the SDLP another ministry, but not necessarily this ministry. A name oft mentoned was Alban Maginness who is now running from Europe. This doesn't necessarily rule him out, given that he may well not be elected in June and be left free to position himself for the role. Another, much more unlikely, name offered in some sections of the media has been Alex Attwood - (I would be very surprised to say the least!)

The latest name I have heard mentioned, not from an SDLP source I may add, is Margaret Ritchie. Switching her from DSD would certainly be an interesting option, would further secure the South Down Westminster seat (although I would accept that this is probably won already) and would in some sense be another shot across the bow of loyalist paramilitaries, who after the withdrawal of CTI funding, now see her as the wicked witch.

If the SDLP is to be offered the job (and I haven't mentioned the possibility of the UUP in this post) then it would seem folly for the Party Leader not to take up the position. Durkan has received some criticism for not taking the DSD portfolio first time round and his leadership would surely be put into question if he bypassed himself for the new post.

A quick mention of the UUP - I suppose Danny Kennedy would be the most obvious choice. And as no threat to a DUP Westminster seat in Newry and Armagh he might be palatable for the larger unionist party. Perhaps a deal will be forged with Sinn Féin that a unionist will take the position first, with a nationalist minister following up in 2012?

I suppose the flurry of names suggests that nobody really knows!

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Time for more questions

Both Slugger and O'Conall Street correctly have a go at FMDFM for wanting to reduce their appearances at Question Time to once a month. The argument is that they can only answer questions relating to their own department: equality, young people, older people, victims etc. therefore they should face questions as often as other Ministers.

Accountability is crucial to the success of any political dispensation. For Robinson and McGuinness to shy away from this does little to boost confidence in the political-public contract. Given that a Minister only tends to answer 5-6 questions in each Q Time session, and all of these questions are known two weeks in advance, it is not as if the existing accountability mechanisms are that robust!

Both Robinson and McGuinness can't have too much to fear from Q Time, if anything they should relish more cut and thrust - it is where the two savvy political operators could arguably be at their best.

A poor political move, which if put into effect, deserves public outcry.

Delivery breeds confidence, not the other way around

The Assembly will return to policing and justice matters next week when Members discuss the Assembly and Executive Review Committee's latest report. The final piece of the devolution jigsaw is ready to be put in place, but as politicians pontificate, so the public disillusionment about whether those on the hill will deliver grows.

The DUP won't move before the European elections in June, fearful of playing into the hands of Jim Allister. Mark Devenport alludes to unnamed sources who are saying the date could now be November, but who is to say it won't be 2010 or longer before the final compromise can be achieved.

Unionist politicians point to an absence of public confidence. Yet doesn't delivery breed confidence, not just in policing and justice matters, but in all policy areas? Could it be the public is lacking confidence, not in whether 'conditions are right', but in the ability of our politicians to lead us towards an improved quality of life?

The biggest danger to devolution no longer lies from within, from the threat that a party could bring about suspension with an effective "if it doesn't work our way it doesnt work at all" type veto. Now the greater danger to devolution is from the outside, indeed it is from us - a declining public confidence in our politicians, regardless of their creed or colour.

A few months ago we were told how the Executive not meeting meant political paralysis, yet now it is back, what really has changed? Still we wait, still we wonder... on academic selection; on the Maze; on the Irish language etc etc etc

In a recent conversation with a backbench DUP MLA I was told his party knew they would be judged on "what they could deliver." The MLA felt the Ulster Unionists failed, because they couldn't deliver tangible benefits in partnership government. This should not just be a concern for the DUP; but for all at the Executive table.

If devolved government doesn't deliver enough, all of our politicians are effected. For when the connection with the public they are elected to serve is lost, then the true meaning behind why we have democracy and a devolved Assembly is lost.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Gildernew Engineering Gildernew Environmental... Part 2

In the follow up to this post and Ian Paisley Junior's attempt to expose something in the relationship between the Agriculture Minister and the named companies it appears not much is being given away. In response to the question the Minister stated:

"I have no relationship with either company, but I have family members who are involved in both businesses. I have no knowledge of any relationship between those companies and O’Neill’s Engineering. Any enquiries with regards to those companies should be directed to the businesses themselves."

Paisley Junior asked Ms Gildernew to assure the House:

"that she has no knowledge of the workings of any of the companies that were mentioned; and to explain whether she believes that it is appropriate that the company in question uses the Minister on its website to promote its activities?"

Gildernew suggested Paisley Jnr contact the businesses himself. Official report available here.

All in all there seems to be no evident scandal and I can find no picture of Ms Gildernew on either website (perhaps it has been removed?)

As for either company's relationship with the pig-meat sector, who knows. Perhaps Paisley Jnr will take the Minister's advice and inquire.

The situation does raise the question of how a Ministerial position relates to a personal business interest or businesses of their family. It should of course be kept distinctly separate, and this is exactly what the Minister suggests is happening.

Sunday, 11 January 2009

The Unionist (Missed?) Opportunity

Both O'Neill and Slugger report on the two main unionist parties' priorities for the forthcoming year. O'Neill's analysis of the DUP shoring up core constitutional support against Jim Allister and the TUV in Euro election year is spot on.

On the other hand, O'Neill begs the question of the UUP / Conservative link-up:

"Is there in reality a sizeable unionist (with small U), presently non-voting, potential electorate who will reward the risks being taken by both Cameron and Empey with this project?"

In my view, the potential of unionsit votes, lies in 1) the young and 2) working class protestant communities. The Conservative link-up does little to satisfy these two criteria.

It is for this reason that I feel the UUP especially has missed an opportunity. They appear as one of the parties most disengaged from youth. So a focus on engaging with young potential unionist voters should be more of a priority - and developing some of the younger talent(?) within the party could help with this. A young woman (or 'God forbid', some young women, plural) would be even better.

Those living in working-class protestant communities will tell you that neither the DUP or UUP offer much on face value, the PUP is limited by its support in only one constituency and the TUV has yet to bother, or is unable to, engage on a serious scale. So who do they vote for? Well the answer is they often don't, but if they do it is probably for the DUP and maybe a few for the likes of the UUP's Fred Cobain in N Belfast.

A UUP opportunity to engage with these potential voters is arguably put in jeopardy by the Tory-boy image of Cameron's conservatism. Self-styled 'Loyalists' who have maybe voted for the DUP in the past, are now starting to feel like they have passed them by. They are asking what is the DUP delivering for us? And when was the last time a DUP MLA went into Tiger's Bay, Taughmonagh or Tullycarnet apart from the week before an election?

Lasting engagement and delivery for these communities, coupled with a real effort to increase voter registration, could dring dividends. But the UUP have chosen a different path, one that may bring a small, insignificant bounce, but which leaves them firmly in their comfort zone.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

2009 Predictions

One of my favourite UK political blogs is a site run by Mike Smithson at Each year Mike runs a prediction contest for things that might happen in the political world in the forthcoming year. Whilst I dont profess to have the readership to run a NI-specific predictions contest myself - i'm only a week old after all - i thought it might be fun to throw out a few suggestions. Some are certainly more likely than others.

Feel free to suggest your own, and maybe someone like Slugger might take up the idea!


The economy to dominate the political agenda

Caitríona Ruane to rile up unionist MLAs once again

The Alliance Party to keep calling itself 'the opposition'

The word 'sustainable' to be used over and over again - sustainable planning, sustainable development, sustainble economy, sustainable government, sustainable skills, sustainable ...

Maze Stadium idea to become officially defunct

Newton Emerson to lambast Monica McWilliams, the Equality Commission and Amnesty International in one sentence.


A Justice Minister to be appointed and devolution of powers to occur

A deal to be done on academic selection

DUP, Sinn Féin and UUP MEPs elected to European Parliament

Margaret Ritchie to 'lose' the judicial review on CTI, but 'win' in respect of a 'moral victory'


Gordon Brown to call a Summer General election

David Trimble to find himself in a Tory Cabinet

Sinn Féin to top the NI poll in the European elections

A Committee on European issues to be created by the Assembly

A UUP MLA to defect to the the DUP (there have been rumours since the Tory Link-up)

Rather unlikely, but fun!

Ian Paisley Junior to return to the Executive!

Jim Allister to cut his losses and move to Israel! (And Bob McCartney to return!)

Alban Maginness to surprise everyone and single-handedly prompt an SDLP electoral resurgence!

The Executive to start each meeting with a group hug!

Iris Robinson to present an edition of the Stephen Nolan Show!

Esoterica NI to find a real scoop!

Friday, 9 January 2009

Gildernew Engineering and Gildernew Environmental of Dungannon

It may be nothing, but is Ian Paisley Junior digging for something here with this question tabled to the Agriculture Minister Michelle Gildernew for 12 January?

1. Mr Paisley Jnr (North Antrim):
To ask the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development what is her relationship with Gildernew Engineering and Gildernew Environmental of Dungannon, and what is that company's relationship with O'Neill's Engineering and the recent pig meat sector scare.
(AQO 1726/09)

The Question Time session may be worth a listen into on Monday to see what he follows it up with.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Pat Doherty Steps Down

Sinn Féin's Pat Doherty has announced he will step down as Vice President of the party at the Ard Fheis in February. Dublin MEP Mary Lou McDonald has been nominated to replace him, a move widely seen as a promotion from her position as Party Chair.

Doherty, the MP for West Tyrone, has been VP since 1988 and his ageing years means his stepping down is of little surprise. The Donegal man has been a bit part player at the Assembly since devolution returned and Esoterica believes it is very likely that Doherty will not stand at the next Westminster election, paving the way for West Tyrone MLA Barry McElduff to stand. McElduff incidentally received more first preference votes than Doherty in the 2007 Assembly election, priming himself as the heir apparent for the Westminster candidature.

Party Leader Gerry Adams will be staying on as President for another year at least, but with Doherty departing, one may genuinely begin to wonder when (and to whom) Adams will be handing over the reins of power.

Hard Times... But What About the Future?

It is virtually impossible to avoid talk of the credit crunch these days and the recession which is engulfing the UK and Ireland (and much of the rest of the world). Robert Peston’s BBC blog is the epitome of how new media is charting the financial crisis, and some would argue even contributing to it. It seems most are in agreement that 2009 is going to be bad: for business, for the economy and for jobs. The question that needs to be asked, however, is how will the UK and Ireland recover beyong the low point? Some sort of recovery is inevitable, but will it be enough to reinvigorate the financial system? If it isn't, then complete, rather than partial reform, could be on the cards.

If 2009 is to be the low point, what will happen in 2010 or 2011? If the economy revives sufficiently well, then the long-term impacts can be minimised and in years to come, this ‘global recession’ could be seen as blip. Britain’s bouncebackability will be tested to the max. The real danger in the long-term is if the recovery is not sufficient, if we don’t bounce back high enough. Then the UK and Ireland could slip into the same sort of financial malaise that has engulfed Japan and East Asia. The long-term effects of this could be much worse than what we are going through at the moment.

Gordon Brown may have forlornly boasted about getting rid of boom and bust, now he may be hoping that it is not quite simply all bust and no boom.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Open Democracy?

I have heard a lot about how the Northern Irish Assembly wants to be more transparent and open to the public. It is after all a fundamental principle of a well-functioning democracy that those who we elect can be held to account. I regularly make trips up to Stormont as a member of the public and arrived today to listen in to one of the Stormont Committees.

The occasionally over officious security guard at the front gate, as per usual asked me where I was going and for what reason, despite turning a blind eye to the jogger and the dog-walker merrily coming in alongside me - still i suppose they have a job to do. It is not the security guards that are my bug bear.

Before arriving I had of course to carefully navigate my way through the at times incomprehensible Northern Ireland Assembly website to find an item of interest in a Stormont Committee. Then I made the journey from the centre of Belfast and after successfuly negotiating the guard at the gate, and a few of his colleagues later on, I am left sitting in the hugely impressive Great Hall of Parliament Buildings waiting for the call to go up and view the Committee's public session. I notice a few others are also waiting just as patiently, some of whom I fear may have come from farther afield than the centre of town.

A security guard says the Committee is ready, I can go up to the room. But "hold on", he says, as the others also rise from their benches, "there are only three spaces available". A public session of a Stormont Committee and only three members of the public can attend?? He mutters something about it being small room! I stare back at him blankly

When I, as one of the lucky early arrivals, get into the room I find myself surrounded by civil servants and officials taking up the vital seats in the public gallery. Civil servants and officials who have only had to come down a couple of flights of stairs from their Stormont offices, whilst Jo Public, who could have made the trip from Enniskillen for all they know, misses out. Half of them don't even appear to be taking much notice of what is going on, and they certainly aren't taking feverish notes, as one of my fellow 'visitor' attendees is.

Three more seats are lying empty, with a yellow sheet left on them with the words 'reserved for press' clearly stated! Not one member of the press enters for the whole session.

And to top it all, the item of business that interested me, that was identified on the Northern Ireland Assembly's website as one of only three items on the agenda, turned out to be just a 'take note' item! The Clerk could have saved me a trip, by stating this very fact on the agenda, but no. So having sat through two hours Members swept over it in a matter of seconds.

Come on NI Assembly! Think of who is paying your wages