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UK Budget: Some Responses June 23, 2010

Posted by Garibaldy in Northern Ireland, Trade Unions, UK General Election 2010.

Unfortunately I don’t have time to do a proper resonse to the extremely reactionary budget announced yesterday by the Tory/Lib Dem coalition, but here a couple of responses stolen quoted from the ICTU and The WP. Increating VAT, cutting access to public benefits, reducing benefits and pensions. Truly, the Tories and their allies have delivered on their campaign promises to be the voice of progressives. And deflationary policies have arrived. Oh joy. As usual, please add more responses in the comments.

From the ICTU


The Irish Congress of Trade Unions calls on all 18 MPs from Northern Ireland to vote against this budget which will drag the local economy even further from any meaningful recovery.

Speaking after the Chancellor George Osborne made his Budget speech in the House of Commons, Avril Hall-Callaghan, Chair of the Northern Ireland Committee of the ICTU, said:

“This budget is regressive and short sighted and will disproportionately affect women both as workers and as mothers, through welfare cuts and pay freezes in the public sector, whose workforce is mostly female.

“The private sector and the organisations which claim to speak in their interests have little to cheer about, either. While a handful of large businesses will profit from gradual cuts in Corporation Tax, retailers and service providers will be hit by a double whammy of the increase in VAT to 20% and the decrease in consumer spending by public sector workers. Given the importance to Northern Ireland of the public sector, this will mean more shuttered shops on our streets.

“The opportunity to stimulate the economy, especially in the regions and nations of the UK, is being squandered at the behest of the bond markets and the ideology of this Tory-led coalition. The promised firm action on the banks and on Capital Gains Tax is a limp slap across the wrist, compared to the threat of 25% cuts across most departmental budgets during this Parliament.

“We await with trepidation to see what the funding consequences are for the Northern Ireland budget. The 18 MPs we have elected now have a duty to protect the people of Northern Ireland from the regressive intentions of this “progressive alliance working in the national interest”, as George Osborne claimed today. We see little progressive in this budget and less in the interest of Northern Ireland.”

From The WP

The Workers’ Party spokesperson Paddy Lynn has reacted with outrage to the provisions of the emergency Budget outlined by multimillionaire George Osborne.

“This has to count among the worst single attack on the working class since the days of Margaret Thatcher. The ConDem coalition has added an extra £40bn of tax increases and spending cuts to the £73bn put in place by Alistair Darling in the dying days of the Labour government”, said Mr Lynn, “and although the ConDems pretend it’s a ‘fair and balanced budget’, it is in fact a massive onslaught on the already poor and disadvantaged”, Mr Lynn continued. “The scale of the public sector cuts ahead is scarcely believable. If the Coalition gets its way in the next four years we will see public sector spending fall by 25 per cent in real terms, with the exceptions of the NHS and the international aid budget. And don’t be fooled by the so-called ‘ring-fencing’ of the NHS because the ConDems are planning £2.6bn in NHS cuts by 2010-11. Make no mistake about it: this government is opening the door to the privatisation of the NHS through outsourcing and the strengthening of bureaucratic internal market mechanisms which already exist. Honest Liberal Democrats –there must be a few- should hang their heads in shame.”

Mr Lynn also noted the Budget’s attack on welfare recipients and the unemployed. “The Tories plan to take £5.84bn a year by 2014-15 from people on benefits through lower annual rises. They will do this through the shift to the consumer prices index (CPI) from the retail price index (RPI) to decide how much benefits rise. Cuts to the housing allowance will force people to move into worse accommodation or private landlords to lower their rates. While those on benefits get ready for worse to come, private landlords all over the country are preparing for the good times”, Mr Lynn continued. “On top of this, workers will bear the brunt of the proposed increase in the rate of the highly regressive Value Added Tax to 20%.”

Mr Lynn then went on to discuss the likely economic outcome of the emergency budget. “While this budget represents a not so stealthy attack on the poor and the welfare state, the ConDems have also justified it as the only course that could be taken to save the economy. In their view cutbacks and tax increases (fiscal tightening) will create profit making opportunities in the private sector, which will put the UK economy back on course As Martin Wolff puts it in the Financial Times, “In current circumstances, the belief that a concerted fiscal tightening across the developed world would prove expansionary is, to put it mildly, optimistic.” The UK economy is going to be depressed because working people will have less to spend. The rich and super-rich will have more to spend it all but they tend not to spend most of their colossal wealth in the real economy. In other words, taking money from the working class and giving it to the rich is in itself a deflationary move. On top of this all major export markets are introducing similar austerity measures. The UK economy cannot hope to substantially improve through exports when no-one is in a position to buy UK goods and services. The Con DemBudget is a recipe for economic depression and social disaster. There is no hope of a private sector led recovery in our economy. What is needed is a massive programme of public works which will expand jobs, expand the amount of money in workers’ pockets and so expand the economy”, Mr Lynn concluded.

Public Sector reacts to New Government May 12, 2010

Posted by Garibaldy in UK General Election 2010.

Just spotted this via Sluggerotoole. Brilliant.

Living Under a Tory Prime Minister Again May 11, 2010

Posted by Garibaldy in UK General Election 2010.


Institute of Directors Issue Instructions to British Politicians May 11, 2010

Posted by Garibaldy in Capitalism, UK General Election 2010.

Just in case you’d forgotten what government is really for, the Institute of Directors has stepped in to remind us all

Commenting on the political crisis, Miles Templeman, Director-General of the Institute of Directors, said:
Business growth and the economy have been forgotten.
“It seems to us that business growth and the economy have been forgotten during these negotiations. This is very worrying because unless we get a strong and secure government, businesses are likely to continue to postpone investment decisions. Political uncertainty will have a negative knock on effect on business growth and job creation and, ultimately, on the whole economy.
“As well as being strong so that it can pass budgets and legislation where necessary, it’s vital the new government must look as though it will survive for several years. And crucially, on the policy front, it must be capable and willing to tackle the deficit through spending cuts and take other measures to reinvigorate the private sector. We are very concerned that the discussions taking place between the parties are not yet sufficiently focussed on building a government that meets all these tests.
“Political reform is an issue, but for this subject to overshadow the urgent necessity of creating a government that can deliver deficit reduction, demonstrates a lack of statesmanship from some of our politicians that is unacceptable under the economic circumstances.
Economic recovery is at risk
“Without a strong and secure government that is focussed on cutting the deficit though spending cuts rather than tax rises, we believe economic recovery will be in jeopardy. Political uncertainty will lead businesses to postpone investment decisions which will have a knock on effect on business growth and job creation. A politically weak government will find it very hard to get agreement on spending cuts and is likely to tackle the deficit, if at all, through tax rises. This would stifle economic growth because our businesses, small and large, are over-taxed already.
“So our message to the politicians is to focus on what matters and remember that your first responsibility is to the country and its economic well being and that party interests should come second.”

Brown Says Yes! May 10, 2010

Posted by Garibaldy in UK General Election 2010.

Fascinating. Gordon Brown has announced he is standing down as Labour leader for a new leader to be in place in time for the Labour Party conference in September.

He said Lib Dem leader Mr Clegg had requested formal negotiations with Labour and it was “sensible and in the national interest” to respond positively to the request.
He said the Cabinet would meet soon and a “formal policy negotiation process” would be established.
It emerged earlier that the Lib Dem negotiating team, who have held days of talks with the Conservatives, had also met senior Labour figures in private.
The BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson said one of the stumbling blocks to any Lib Dem-Labour deal had been Mr Brown himself.

Labour Transport Secretary Lord Adonis is on TV now spinning that the Tories and Lib Dems cannot form a stable and sensible government capable of securing economic recovery and growth given the scale of divergence between their policy positions. There is a hint here that this is to smooth the way for a Lib/Lab pact. However, the negotiations are continuing with the Tories. Could be that Labour are trying to bounce the Lib Dems into an alliance with them given that the Lib Dems have opened informal talks with them over the weekend. Alastair Campbell just mentioning forcing the pace as I was typing that. SonofStan’s chances of being able to get back to his normal routine seem slim now!

UPDATE: I see Paul beat me to this announcement. Thanks Paul.

The Northern Ireland Election Results May 8, 2010

Posted by Garibaldy in UK General Election 2010.

So while the media continues to pretend that the instability on the financial markets has more to do with the fact no party has an overall majority at Westminster than it does with insignificant factors like the situation in Greece and linked difficulties for the Euro, and the attempts at seducing the Lib Dems continue, what about the results in the north? For the actual results, and some discussion of each constituency, see the results post by the blogging king (or should that be People’s Commisar) of this election, Splintered Sunrise. The results have left the DUP with 8 seats (a loss of one, and what a loss!), PSF unchanged at 5 seats, the SDLP unchanged at 3 seats, Alliance with their first ever MP, Sylvia Hermon as an Independent unionist, and the UUP/Tories with none. In terms of vote share, PSF got the most at 25.5%, followed by the DUP at 25%, the SDLP with 16.5%, UCUNF at 15.2%, Alliance with 6.3%, TUV at 3.9%, Greens 0.5%, and others with 7.1%.

Despite the loss of Peter Robinson, this has been a good election for the DUP, who have held off the twin challenge of the UCUNF on the one hand and the TUV on the other with ease. Although they slipped into second place in terms of vote share, that is the consequence of their not standing in either Fermanagh/South Tyrone and North Down. Had they stood in all seats, and all other parties done likewise, they would have gained enough votes to take them into first place. So whatever anyone tells you, the DUP remains the most popular party in the north. Whether they will remain so at the next Assembly elections is more difficult to say. The DUP percentage share fell in every constituency they stood except for West Tyrone; but, with the obvious exception of East Belfast, the fall was not as much as they might have feared given that in 2005 they were riding so high, and were without a challenger to the right. The most satisfying aspect of this election for the DUP has to be the way they dealt with their unionist rivals. Losing the seat to Alliance is much preferable to losing it to the UUP or TUV. The TUV’s main challenge was in North Antrim. Ian Paisley Junior beat Jim Allister comprehensively, by around 12,000 votes. The TUV’s next most credible candidate was the former UUP MP Willie Ross in East (London)derry, and he came fifth, behind both nationalist parties and the UCUNF as well as the DUP. Apart from Allister in North Antrim, it looks like any TUV prospects in the Assembly are highly dependent on transfers, and are therefore very unpredictable, and probably not that great. So, in terms of number of seats held, number of votes, and the performance of their rivals, this was nearly as good an election as the DUP could have realistically hoped for. As for Peter Robinson’s future, realistically he will have to go as leader of the party. Presumably this will mean stepping down as first minister as well. There is no little irony in Robinson, who waited so patiently behind Paisley for so long, helping to force Paisley out after a year as First Minister, only to have to go himself under duress within two years himself. And, like Paisley, a large part of his downfall has been self-inflicted. It was interesting to watch Ian Paisley Junior, who had been forced to resign as junior minister partly due to the attitude of the Robinsons, speak the language of loyalty, while his body language, to me anyway, seemed to suggest not a little satisfaction at the situation. Nigel Dodds seems the most likely successor, but the situation could be more complex, as we’ll discuss below.

The election was a disaster for the UUP/Tory alliance. It was clearly never a happy marriage, as illustrated by the situation in South Antrim, where a row with the Tories over the views on homosexuality of the UUP prospective candidate resulted in Reg Empey stepping in as candidate, and failing to unseat Willie McCrea, the most vulnerable of the DUP MPs. David McNarry, an Ulster Unionist MLA who is influential in his own mind at least (he described himself as a thinker and a fixer and someone who could bring people together), had no hestitation in describing this as the end of Empey’s leadership, something which Empey himself seemed to accept, though he said he would not rush any decisions. Unionists talk a great deal about unionist unity, but only rarely practise it. We saw it in this election in Fermanagh/South Tyrone fail by the narrowest of margins. The calls for unionist unity in South Belfast were refused. For the UUP, a deal elsewhere was unacceptable, not only to their Tory paymasters, but also if they were to have any chance of rebuilding to challenge the DUP for number one spot again in the medium term. The UCUNF did nothing for them, and any hope they have of unseating the DUP is gone for the foreseeable future.

And so to the issue of unionist realignment. The nightmare scenario for unionism is Martin McGuinness becoming First Minister after the Assembly elections next year, a very real possibility. Jim Allister’s whole pitch to overturn the current system was based on this scenario. What this election has proven is that the majority of unionists are behind devolution, and would rather see a workable devolution based on mandatory coalition and its implications than no devolution at all. With Empey and Robinson almost certain to go, and McGuinness a very real prospect for First Minister, what are the chances of unionist realignment? It seems clear that some within the UUP have accepted that they are destined to play second fiddle within unionism, and would rather cooperate with the DUP in the strategic interests of unionism as a whole – i.e. keeping a nationalist out of the First Minister’s seat – than continue a losing and demoralising rivalry. With Robinson likely to go, it may well be possible that significant sections of the UUP would accept closer links with a DUP led by Dodds with an ex-UUP figure like Arlene Foster or Jeffrey Donaldson as deputy. I don’t think a merger is on, but some form of electoral pact seems likely. If not, I wouldn’t be surprised to see further defections to the DUP. So the consequences of this election for unionism are significant. A change at the very top for each of the parties looks certain, and quite possibly a change in the way the two largest unionist parties relate to one another.

As for nationalism. Gerry Adams will be well pleased, both as an individual and as a party leader. The raft of allegations surrounding Adams have made next to no impact, and his party has held onto all their seats, and decisively moved ahead of the SDLP in other constituencies, which bodes well for the Assembly elections. It also got the most votes, though as I said above, I think this does not fully reflect the reality of the situation. In Foyle, they cut Durkan’s lead, though remain well behind. South Down pretty much replicated the last result (a 0.1% swing away from the SDLP in Ruane’s favour). There probably was some tactical voting by unionists for Ritchie, but she would most likely have taken the seat without it. The gap in the vote is roughly the same despite a lower turnout. Those suggesting that Ritchie’s victory was solely due to unionists seem to me to be exaggerating. Overall this election points towards more success for PSF next year.

Margaret Ritchie will also be pleased, both as an individual and as a party leader. Holding on to South Belfast was a good result, especially as McDonnell’s majority was such that he would have won regardless of Maskey standing aside. The seat is still vulnerable to a unionist unity candidate but that is outside the SDLP’s control. McDonnell has done a decent job of increasing his vote. His vote share was less than the combined nationalist share last time, but his vote was about 1400 more. It seems that not all Maskey’s likely voters voted for him, and he still increased his vote significantly. So at headline level, a very satisfactory result for the SDLP. However, as Mark McGregor has noted, there may also be some warning signs in terms of the Assembly election, as well as the slippage behind their rivals in several places. It’s hard to judge what is likely to happen at the Assembly election in Fermanagh/South Tyrone, where the SDLP vote halved this election, but an Assembly seat there may be at risk. Overall definitely a confidence-boosting election, and one that will maintain enthusiasm and belief.

As for the others. Eamonn McCann can be very satisfied with his 3000 votes, although I think that an absence of transfers will stop him from taking a seat at the Assembly elections next year. The Green vote in North Down, where they have Brian Wilson as an MLA, was down on their Assembly vote of 2007 from 2839 to 1043. They will be worried if Wilson is not to stand next year I would think, but more confident if is does. Obviously an outstanding election for Alliance and Naomi Long personally. Jenny thinks that this just might mean that

they indicate the possible beginning of a restructuring of NI politics that might begin to move us away from the domination of the territorial issue and the sectarian carve-up – I am being very tentative here

I’d like to think that’s true, but I’m not so sure. Alliance took 6.3% overall, well up on 2005, a combination of Long’s Westminster vote tripling and their standing in every constituency. It is also up from their 5.3% in the 2007 Assembly election. I don’t think it transforms their prospects, although it could point to an extra seat in East Belfast. That possibility is reduced by the fact that Long will be resigning from the Assembly, and so her personal vote won’t be in play. Anna Lo did very well in South Belfast, avoiding the possibility of being squeezed. Alliance are justifiably delighted with their results, and we shouldn’t underestimate the significance of an MP being elected from outside communal politics. With a Justice Minister and an MP, they look a much more serious and important party than at any time since the Sunningdale Executive.

Overall turnout was down by 5%, from 62.5 to 57.6, continuing a trend in recent elections suggesting that peace and devolution have for many encouraged a withdrawal from politics. The peace dividend is apathy perhaps. I think that the headline results have been somewhat misleading. I’ve already mentioned the vote share, and the fact that only one Belfast seat is in the hands of a unionist is also misleading. Only west Belfast does not contain a majority of unionist voters. The two biggest parties look set to tighten their grip, and we may well be seeing a long-term trend towards consolidation into an overwhelmingly dominant unionist and nationalist party on each side, and there’s no reason to expect a surge of support for others next year. So a more mixed set of election results than at first glance, and the main consequence may well be a move towards more straightforward sectarian headcounts despite the election of Alliance’s first MP.

Political Debate – BNP Style May 6, 2010

Posted by Garibaldy in Reaction, The Far Right, UK General Election 2010.

Footage from the BBC website showing the racist and violent true face of the BNP.

The General Election in Northern Ireland: A Look in CLR’s Crystal Ball April 28, 2010

Posted by Garibaldy in UK General Election 2010.

The nominations closed last week, and we have 108 candidates for the 18 constituencies. In the absence of The Workers’ Party and other left groups like the Socialist Party, there is just one candidate unambiguously from the left, Eamonn McCann, standing for People Before Profit in Foyle. In terms of other candidates that identify as neither nationalist nor unionist, Alliance is running in every constituency, and the Green Party is running four candidates (and the areas in which the Greens are running suggest something about the class nature of their support). There is also 19 year old Martin McAuley (whose election agent easily has the greatest hair in Irish politics), who is running on a platform of cross-community and cross-class unity in north Belfast, and Ciarán McClean in West Tyrone, who comes from a left background, but who is running on a non-sectarian, enviromentalist platform. There is also John Stevenson in Fermanagh/South Tyrone, an independent candidate who states “Those with vested interests have never and will never succeed”, the founder of engineering firm Titanic Rebuilt 2010, said. “We are one people and we all have one future. It is a future equally shared. I am absolutely confident that our people will make the right decision on May 6.”

And that’s it. Less than a quarter of the candidates. None of these candidates, despite Alliance trying to talk up Naomi Long’s chances in east Belfast, has much chance of taking a seat, and many of their votes will be very low. The simple numbers tell us something about the weakness of those seeking to build a united community alternative, never mind a left alternative, to the tribal politics of unionism and nationalism. Even the numbers themselves are deceptive, over-representing the non-communal electorate, and the organisational strength of those involved. If you look at the Alliance candidate profiles, a lot of their candidates are standing in areas to which they have little connection. Although Alliance can get the required numbers in each constituency to sign the nomination papers, it seems that in some areas there is very little in the way of an organisation on the ground, and so candidates are being drafted in from areas in Belfast and parts of Antrim and Down where they are stronger. Next year’s elections for the Assembly and local government, where there are fewer than 10 members of the united community group, and no left members (the PUP’s Dawn Purvis probably being the most left-wing MLA), will see more candidates representative of non-sectarian and progressive politics, but without much hope of success. Eamonn McCann would be in with a strong chance of taking a council seat if Derry, but I’m not sure if he will stand for the council, and if the reform of local government goes ahead, cutting the number of councils to 11, the left’s task would become even more difficult. If the candidates committed to the united community group maintain their seats, that would probably be a good result, although the TUV’s presence may make it some gains more likely. We’ll have a better sense of that after the election.

As for the mainstream, it’s an interesting election for several reasons. The scandals surrounding the DUP, the emergence of the TUV, and the Tory-Ulster Unionist alliance make this a much less predictable election for unionism than at any time since the 1970s. I highly recommend Splintered Sunrise’s Know Your Constituency series of posts, especially the one for North Antrim, where Ian Paisley’s seat may be lost by Ian Jr to the TUV leader Jim Allister. The Ulster Unionist Party, which for 50 years ran a one party-state in the north, is seriously faced with the possibility of having no MPs. Reg Empey may be in with a chance of unseating Willie McCrea in South Antrim, and they have some hopes for Trevor Ringland in East Belfast (Peter Robinson’s seat) and for Mike Nesbitt in Strangford (formerly Irish Robinson’s seat). The DUP, which cannot expect a repeat of its vote in 2005 due to the emergence of the TUV and increased signs of life in the UCUNF, will be seeking to hold all its seats while minimising the amount of voters who defect to the UUP and TUV. The UUP needs to win at least one seat, and beyond that will have an eye on consolidating for the Assembly elections. The TUV is pushing hard to take North Antrim, and to a lesser extent East Londonderry, where former UUP MP Willie Ross is battling the DUP’s Gregory Campbell, and again will have one eye on the Assembly elections.

The only nationalist seats in danger are those in Fermanagh/South Tyrone and South Belfast, which has raised the issue of electoral pacts once more. Although Gerry Kelly has been trying to talk up his chances in North Belfast, it is highly unlikely he can unseat the DUP’s Nigel Dodds, and I don’t really see any unionist seats being under threat from nationalists. His party’s joint priorities will be to hold on to Fermanagh/South Tyrone and to gain the most votes overall. The SDLP will be hoping to hold all three seats, with South Belfast the most difficult, and, as with the UUP, to gain back some ground across NI with the aim of securing their seats and possibly gaining in the next Assembly election.

So to stick my neck out, at a time where the balance of forces within unionism in particular might change, and make predictions. I think the SDLP will hold its three seats. I think the DUP will hold all its seats, though with sometimes greatly reduced majorities. South Antrim may fall to Reg Empey, but at the minute I think McCrea will narrowly hold on. It was a difficult seat for the DUP to win, and they have worked hard at trying to keep it, and the Tory link-up hasn’t had as transformative an impact as the UUP hoped. The TUV vote is again a difficult factor to judge, but I think their impact might be balanced by broadly pro-agreement unionists who shifted to the DUP between 2005 and 2007. Slyvia Hermon should hold North Down easily as an independent unionist. Which leaves us then with PSF. They should hold four out of their five seats easily. The vulnerable one is Fermanagh/South Tyrone, where I’m guessing that enough nationalists will be angry at the unionist pact to switch from the SDLP to push Gildernew over the top, and so save the seat for the incumbent. So basically, I’m predicting no change, apart from the UUP being wiped out by Herman’s resignation, which is the case now anyway. The predictions for South Antrim, South Belfast, and Fermanagh/South Tyrone are made without any great degree of confidence.

Whatever happens, this has been a bad election for the left, and a bad election for the prospect of removing sectarianism and creating what we now seem to be calling a shared future. Anybody who doubts that should have a look at the election manifestoes. With the exception of the SDLP, when it comes to the big four parties, the concept is conspicuous by its absence. What this election proves is the strategic necessity not only of left cooperation, but also that the left must be willing to work with those seeking to end communal politics, and create a new type of politics in NI based on commonality and active citizenship.

DUP Election Manifesto, SF Election Manifesto, SDLP Election Manifesto, UCUNF Election Manifesto, Alliance Manifesto, Green Party Manifesto, Eamonn McCann Manifesto

Eamonn McCann in Spat over Election Material at Free Derry Corner April 27, 2010

Posted by Garibaldy in UK General Election 2010.

People Before Profit candidate Eamonn McCann has claimed that Sinn Féin have told him to take down by tomorrow afternoon an election mural at the back of Free Derry Corner on the Lecky Road.
However, Sinn Féin have said it had already booked the space in agreement with a committee who look after the wall in order to erect its own election poster.

Saw this story from the Derry Journal via Mick at Sluggerotoole.

Mr McCann said he was unaware of any formal booking procedures, and claimed that his election workers had agreed with people usually involved with the wall that his banner could go up. He said that no political party controls Free Derry Corner and he won’t be taking the banner down.
“I received a text telling me to take down the poster by Wednesday lunchtime or it would be taken down It is a community facility. It is not their wall or their area. They have claimed more public space than any other party and now they want the wall as well,”

Committee member Tony Doherty, a member of Sinn Fein, who sent the text to Mr McCann, told the ‘Journal’; “I have been in contact with both sides and I am hoping for an amicable solution. There is a long-standing protocol and I hope that everyone adheres to that protocol.”

As Mick Fealty points out, the situation is particularly ironic given that McCann’s involvement in the original Free Derry in January 1969 (you can read McCann’s account of the period here). It’s hard to know what has happened here. The Derry Journal reports that there is a specially constructed frame for groups to hang banners, so presumably there is some sort of booking process for deciding who can hang what when, so that claim seems credible. Having said that, it’s not inconceivable that an organisation used to hanging its banners there had just assumed that it would have the space, and that McCann has stolen a march on them. Clearly McCann at least feels that there is an issue here of one party seeking to squeeze out dissenting voices. In an election where the left is represented solely by McCann, it would be a shame if his voice were to be drowned out.

EDIT: It seems that elsewhere in county Derry, a more direct approach might have been adopted.

The Northern Ireland Leaders’ Debate April 22, 2010

Posted by Garibaldy in UK General Election 2010.

Northern Ireland gets a leaders’ debate of its very own (not sure if that link will work in the south, and it lasts for 30 days). And, as was inevitable, it was a poor imitation of the one across the water – and timed, for reasons I’ll never understand, to clash with the last half hour of the Sky British leaders debate. Unlike the British debates, there were adverts in this one, which obivously had a detrimental effect on the debate as a whole. This isn’t a detailed description of the debate like we had for the British one last week, just some random responses.

And, apart from laughing at Adams’ “check out our leadership” line and wondering if Robinson realised he was going off message when saying that at the last election the DUP was given a mandate to negotiate for the people of Northern Ireland (the people of NI is supposed to include non-unionists now Peter; it’s not 1974 or 1985 any more), my first major response was to wonder what the hell Margaret Ritchie was doing reading out her one minute spiel as to why the audience of first-time voters should vote for her party. Ritchie has made a name for herself standing up clearly, whether it was over funding to loyalists or over the election pacts. However, how on earth are we supposed to take seriously a leader who can’t even outline the very basics of why she should get support for only 60 seconds? At this point, I imagine there was quite a lot of forehead slapping going on among SDLP members wondering why they hadn’t voted for Mc Donnell. If there wasn’t, there certainly should have been.

The question of abstentionism came up. Adams gave a robust defence of abstentionism, a question that might come up more should there be a hung parliament. He raised the issue of nationality (although he referred to England rather than Britain), and the oath of allegiance as arguments against it. He also launched a well-planned attack on the attendance rate of the SDLP MPs, and arguing that they had already sold themselves in the event of a hung parliament anyway by saying they would vote with Labour. His argument in short was that the NI MPs had next to no influence, and that instead increasing devolved powers was where it’s at. Robinson strongly stated that a hung parliament would be an opportunity for NI MPs to secure a deal for NI. Ritchie argued it was vital to be in Westminister to fight cuts and for NI’s economic and business interests. Reg Empey was keen not to have a hung parliament, like Tories generally, and suggested that it offered oppunities for nationalists in NI, Wales and Scotland to weaken the union.

The Fermanagh/South Tyrone pact, and the issue of pacts in general came up. Both unionists were openly in favour, and Robinson clearly hopes for some sort of deal for future assembly elections. Ritchie maintained her strong opposition, but on the grounds of representation rather than saying they were sectarian. Adams accused Ritchie of ignoring his requests for a meeting (she accused him of a “mistruth”) and argued that there was nothing wrong with pacts, but said that his objection to the Fermanagh/South Tyrone pact was that its midwife was the Orange Order. That may or may not be true (I’m not sure that it is) but it was certainly the most effective line to give to his target constituency. From my own point of view, the discussions of the pact reflected an extremely significant problem dealing with sectarianism. Either people pretend it is much less of a problem than it actually is, or they implicitly – and sometimes explicitly – suggest it is a problem that themmuns have. While this attitude continues, the anti-sectarian struggle will be an extremely difficult one, and anyone who looked at the proposals on a shared future from the two largest parties can see that it is liable to be a major problem for a long time. KeithBelfast, who secured post-debate interviews with each of the leaders ( Reg, Peter, Margaret and Gerry ), asked Empey outright about sectarianism and the electoral pact, and, clearly uncomfortable, he wriggled without answering the question.

Empey at a serious go at the Family Robinson over expenses, both regarding expensive pens and the land deal. Robinson pointed out that he personally had been cleared on the expenses issue. His defence on the piece of land he got for £5 from Fred Fraser in order to help another developer was quite weak, although he stuck to his line that he hadn’t been helped financially. Robinson got questioned on the issues of corruption regarding his family, and then Gerry Adams was asked by the chair about his brother. He instead addressed the question asked from the audience by talking about the average industrial wage and an absence of personal expenses among his MPs. On his brother, he pointed out that people had been entirely sympathetic to his situation. And that was that. Instead, Dougal then asked about membership of the Provos, and about him questioning the health of Deloures Price and Brendan Hughes when they said that he had been in it. Adams maintained that he was never in it, never asked to join, and pointed out his involvement in politics stemmed from 1964 and 1965. Empey told him that no-one believed him, but then said it was time to move on, talking about the dissidents, and he returned to the land deal issue. And, as with nationalism, it is the infra-unionist battle that the leaders were most interested in.

Peter Robinson had a decent performance. He kept his temper in check when his integrity was questioned, citing the legal opinions that had cleared him, and the fact that they had been accepted by Martin McGuinness and UTV’s own political correspondent as clearing him. Empey I think did well. He scored points against Robinson. Adams had a very strong performance, there is no doubt. He was well briefed on the SDLP’s vulnerabilities, landed a punch with the point about an SDLP MLA on an MOD-funded trip to Afghanistan, and handled the difficult questions about his own issues with aplomb. A clear difference from the leadership debate in the south at the last general election there. He is much more attuned to northern politics, and a northern audience. Ritchie was frankly dreadful. Having started off reading things out, she then continued to do it for pretty much every question. You could see the typed sheets on her desk. She came across as a serious lightweight, if that’s not a contradiction in terms.

Overall, then, I have to say I found it a bit rubbish. Adams clearly did best, then probably Empey and Robinson. Ritchie was the clear loser. In 2001, a disastrous performance in a debate at the old Crumlin Road Courthouse made the outgoing 77-year old North Belfast Ulster Unionist MP Cecil Walker look old, tired, and shambolic. He dropped from first place to fourth in the election. While Ritchie’s performance was nothing as bad, I would think hers is the next most distastrous television performance I’ve seen by a politician in NI.

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