Conservatives prepare for UUP failure but they might still be hedging

At long last, agreement has finally been reached between the Northern Ireland Regional Conservatives and the Conservative leadership on a strategy for promoting Conservativism into the future.

The Party has issued the following announcement copied by email to the membership:

“The Conservative Party in Northern Ireland has committed itself to an ongoing programme of campaigning and development and will shortly move into a new campaign headquarters in Bangor, Co. Down. A full time member of staff will be based at the headquarters and one of the Party’s most senior campaign directors has been appointed to liaise with the Party in Northern Ireland.

The Party is committed to the development of progressive centre right politics which offer the electorate of Northern Ireland the opportunity to cast their votes for and participate directly with the national Government of the United Kingdom.  The Party will continue to review how Conservatives in Northern Ireland can play a full part in the Conservative Party as in every other part of the United Kingdom and senior Conservatives in Northern Ireland will work with the Board of the Party to develop that relationship.

Central to that development will be the Party’s desire to see Conservative Associations formed in every Northern Ireland constituency and an active programme of membership recruitment at a local level.

Conservative Party co-chairman Baroness Warsi said: “The Conservative Party in Northern Ireland has the unequivocal support of the Party nationally. Politics in Northern Ireland continues to evolve and we are determined to be at the heart of that evolution. Our approach will be one of active engagement – starting with the fielding of candidates in the Local Council elections in May.”

With that issue having been settled, the regional chairman of the Conservatives, Irwin Armstrong has now withdrawn his offer to resign. So is this the end of the uncertainty for Northern Ireland conservatives?

Jeffrey Peel’s headline suggests that the Conservative Party has “dumped” the UUP. In his statement on the question of fielding candidates at Assembly elections, Irwin Armstrong has said as follows:

“Members of our Executive have agreed that we would not now be able to properly contest the Assembly elections as we will not have the necessary infrastructure in place due to the events of recent months.”

The right to field Assembly (and presumably Parliamentary) candidates in the future is very important but there will be no further elections on the horizon (except the Euros) for four years.  Furthermore, you do not need an “infrastructure” to field a candidate. Ask an Independent. You just need to be able to register and pay the deposit.

There is a very strong case for the Conservatives putting up candidates, even in the limited time and space available. Nobody would suggest that a Conservative candidate would stand much chance of winning an Assembly seat but the act of fielding candidates would make the clearest possible statement to the electorate that the party no longer has any ties with the UUP.

Last November, Conservative leaders promised the UUP that they would not be fielding candidates.  The effect of this latest declaration is that the Conservatives will not be breaking that promise.  The UUP may now be in the equivalent of a bin liner but it could be taken out of it later.  It is much too early to say that it has been dumped.

Posted in Conservative Party, Conservativism, Stormont, UK Politics, Unionism, UUP | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Bigotry in Britain and Northern Ireland

There is a lot of  political news at the moment and I am trying to catch my breath – the resignation of Alan Johnson, Shadow Chancellor and the announcement of a General Election in the Republic of Ireland.   As I write, Tony Blair is giving evidence to the Iraq enquiry.  Posts on those subjects will follow shortly.

Meanwhile, yesterday, TV coverage was also given to Baroness Warsi, the co-Chairman of the Conservative Party after she highlighted the problem of Islamaphobia in Britain.  It is very important Conservatives across the country show their solidarity with Baroness Warsi.  The message will be all the more powerful if senior conservatives, who are non-muslims, express their public support.    

Bigotry in Britain is not discussed as much as it is in Northern Ireland.  Nonetheless, Baroness Warsi’s public comments are to be welcomed by anybody in Northern Ireland who is interested in tackling bigotry against groups of people, whether it is sectarianism, homophobia or any other act of prejudice which is demeaning, divisive or stigmatising.

Northern Ireland’s problems are compounded by the institutionalization of some forms of bigotry.   If the leader of an institution, religion or any other body fails to take moral responsibility for the problem of bigotry, then it is so much the harder for individuals, who are members of that institution, religion or other body to tackle it themselves. 

I come across bigotry by individuals on a regular basis.  Recently, I heard somebody say, ““X” is a Prod but his shop does some very good bargains.”  This is not acceptable.  This is not some phenomenon which we can just brush aside as being a harmless conversation within a community.  At the extreme end of the continuum, somebody will be sufficiently influenced by it to commit a hate crime.  Anybody who notices it in their own community has a moral duty to clamp down upon it and set an example. 

In my various posts, I have highlighted the fact that institutions or bodies have not done enough to tackle bigotry. This includes not just the Orange Order but also the GAA and the Churches.   What Northern Ireland needs, particularly, is for leaders of those institutions to be courageous and challenge bigotry within their own community.

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A very French slip of the tongue

If Martin McGuinness made a speech about his home city which began with the words “It is great to be back in Londonderry,” what would his supporters think?

OK, you all know the answer. A Nationalist or Republican would usually only say “Derry.” A unionist would usually say “Londonderry.” If Martin McGuinness made that gaffe, I suspect that his supporters would be angered and embarrassed in equal measure.

That is the nearest local analogy that I can think of to describe the gaffe make by Nicolas Sarkozy when he visited Alsace, a region of North-Eastern France on the border with Germany. Except that the gaffe was far worse than that. Firstly, the background.

In 1871, France went to war with Germany after the German States merged to become a Prussian – dominated German Empire. The French lost the war and part of its lands. The Germans annexed the territory known as “Alsace-Lorraine” which remained in their possession until the end of the First World War. In the Second World War, the region was, again, treated as part of Germany.

As the Telegraph reports:

“Mr Sarkozy made the slip during a speech in the Alsatian town of Truchtersheim, less than 20 miles from the German border.

Speaking to representatives of the agricultural industry, Mr Sarkozy said he could accepted unfair competition between China and India, but not between Germany and France.

“I’m not saying that simply because I’m in Germany,” he said, before correcting himself to say: “I’m in Alsace.”

The crowd immediately began jeering and then booing Mr Sarkozy, who appeared shocked by what he had said ” putting his hands up in the air as if surrender. “

To be fair to Sarko, it was probably an innocent slip of the tongue. “Allemagne” (meaning Germany) and “Alsace” are phonetically very similar words of the French language.  

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A large ray of light about to be shone on the Iraq war?

Tony Blair is under fire, yet again, over the Iraq war. This time, the focus is on the legality of the war. In the course of the Iraq Inquiry headed by Sir John Chilcott, currently taking place, Lord Goldsmith, the former Attorney General, has given evidence that he was uncomfortable about the statements made by Mr. Blair to Parliament in the run up to the invasion of Iraq.

After two previous public Inquiries, we were still some way away from finding out the full facts about the Government’s conduct of the Iraq crisis and the decision to go to war.

In September 2002, the Government published a dossier, which was laid before Parliament. The dossier contained allegations that Iraq held biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction and had reconstituted its nuclear weapons programme. The dossier was based upon the interpretation of intelligence available to the Joint Intelligence Committee. The findings in the dossier were used as a justification for going to war with Iraq. After the war, the allegations contained in dossier were discredited.

The first Inquiry, led by Lord Hutton, was tasked with finding out the reasons for the death of Dr. David Kelly, a former biological weapons expert and employee of the Ministry of Defence. Dr. Kelly was the source used by BBC reporter, Andrew Gilligan, to justify his allegation that the Government had “sexed up” the dossier. Consequently, it was alleged that Tony Blair and the Labour Government had misled Parliament. After being named as Gilligan’s source, Dr. Kelly committed suicide.

The Hutton report was published in January 2004. The report was highly critical of the journalistic standards of the BBC and Mr. Gilligan, in particular. More importantly, Hutton exonerated the Government, having concluded that the Government was unaware of the reservations, relating to the evidence about WMD, within the intelligence community.

In February 2004, the Government initiated a review into the intelligence relating to Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. The review also dealt with wider issues of intelligence relating to countries of concern, other than Iraq. However, the review was not concerned with the political decision-making leading up to the war. That deficit in the remit of the review forms part of the context in which this latest story is developing.

The review was chaired by Lord Butler. Lord Butler’s report was published in July 2004. The report concluded that Intelligence had not checked their sources thoroughly enough. The intelligence was flawed. Furthermore, warnings from the Joint Intelligence Committee on the limitations of intelligence were not made clear. Read the BBC’s summary of the report here.

Many were not satisfied by the report. The exemption of political decision-making from its remit left an important gap in public knowledge which had not been filled by the time of the 2005 General election.

The Chilcott Inquiry into the UK’s role and involvement in the Iraq war was announced by Gordon Brown in June 2009. It has been ongoing since November 2009.

This Friday, Tony Blair will give evidence to the Inquiry. He will presumably provide answers to the criticisms of Lord Goldsmith.  The UK has waited far too long for the full truth to come out about the Iraq war.  Let us hope that we may soon, at last, get a proper insight into what really happened.

Posted in Defence, Iraq War, Labour Party, Tony Blair, UK Politics, Weapons of Mass destruction | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Munster crash out of the Heineken Cup – Ulster go marching on

The weekend’s news sent shockwaves across Ireland. No, it was not Brian Cowan’s meeting with his parliamentary party, although that story is still rather spicy. 

It was the demise of Munster and the rise of Ulster.  For the first time in 13 years, they failed to reach the quarter-final of the Heineken Cup, losing 32 – 16 to Toulon.  At the other end of the Irish Rugby scale, Ulster beat tournament favourites, Biarritz of France.

As a former resident of Limerick (Ireland’s rugby capital), I know how my friends down south are feeling right now. They follow Munster with passionate devotion. For them, this really is a sporting Armageddon.   Such was the blow to them that I even resisted the temptation to slag that it was the English fly-half, Johnny Wilkinson, who did much of the damage.

munster fans

Some will blame the team’s poor showing in this competition on injuries.  Certainly, that has not helped.  It may be, however, that the spine of this present team is ageing and in decline. 

Perhaps Munster needed this defeat. They have come back many times from the brink to grab a quarter final place.   Now, they can accept that they need to re-build their team.  Munster will rise to glory again.

Contrast Munster’s position with Ulster, whose fortunes in this competition are almost a mirror reversal.  Ulster are still in the competition following their famous 9 – 6 win on Saturday against Biarritz.  Ian Humphries did the business. 

If Ulster win next week against bottom-of-the-pool Aironi of Italy, they are almost certain to obtain a quarter final place.  Biarritz have a harder game against Bath but are still favourites to win that match.  Ulster will win the group if they achieve one more point more than Biarritz next week.  A weekend trip to Viadana now looks tempting.

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Opinion polls – ignore them until 2013 if you can

I don’t like talking about opinion polls just after a general election. Unfortunately, the media stuffs them into one’s face. This has been particularly so during the recent Oldham and Saddleworth by-election, which Labour won. I treated that result with bored unconcern.

The Coalition has lost popularity since it came to power. There is no surprise here. Indeed, senior Conservatives and Liberal Democrats had urged their supporters to prepare for unpopularity.

Opinion polls are important at any time in a political cycle. Early in a Government’s administration, they are a useful guide to predicting by-elections and local authority elections.

The Conservative opinion poll rating has hardly changed at all. Their rolling average is 37.03, compared with their general election poll of 36.93%. The big change has been in the Lib Dem share of the vote, down 13% from 23.56%. 10.5% of those lost Lib Dem voters have swung to Labour. The latter now top the opinion poll ratings with 39.95%. If those swings were repeated on a uniform trend in a general election, Labour would be back in power, winning about 336 seats and a comfortable overall majority in the House of Commons.

We are, of course, in a period of austerity where unpopular measures being taken by the Government are beginning to bite hard. At the moment, the Conservative leadership is very unlikely to be unflustered by the drop in popularity. For the following reasons, they are likely to take them with a pinch of salt for the next couple of years, at least.

When the Conservatives came to power in 1979, they won 339 seats, 43.9% of the popular vote and a very comfortable overall commons majority. The legacy of the outgoing Labour administration was very high inflation, over taxation, poor industrial relations and the outlook of a nation whose economic prospects were spiralling downwards. Their most urgent priority was to bring down inflation. The minimum lending rate shot up. The exchange rate went up. Manufacturing production fell violently. Businesses were forced to make savings either through wage cuts or redundancies. If they did not succeed, they went bankrupt. Unemployment rocketed to more than 3 million. The recession of 1979 to 1981 was the worst that the country had suffered since the early 1930s.

The lost production which occurs during a recession always takes longer than the period of the recession to claw back. In that recession, the level of GDP did not return to its pre-recession high until about the time of the May 1983 General Election. There were multiple reasons why the Conservatives won that election by a landslide. Labour’s lurch to the far left was a very big factor. Back then, we were still fighting a cold war and we had just fought a conventional war in the Falkland Islands. The war exposed Michael Foot’s pacifism. However, just as big a reason for the Conservative victory was the return of the economic feel-good factor. Inflation had by then come down to below 4%. Correspondingly, interest rates had come down. Unemployment was falling and the economy was growing.

There are big differences between the fortunes of Mrs. Thatcher’s first administration and the prospects of this present coalition government. The obvious one is that this is a government of two parties. Another one is that this Government took power about 6 months after the end of a recession, meaning that the change of Government took place at different stages of the economic cycle. We have not yet reached the stage of full GDP recovery. That is not expected to occur until about late spring 2012. A general election in May 2015 will be approximately 3 years into full recovery. In terms of the relationship between economic cycles and political fortune, the 2015 election may be more comparable to the 1987 general election. By that time, the UK was 4 years into recovery. There was a new, more realistic, Labour leader. The Conservatives still won the election with a majority of more than 100 seats in the House of Commons.

It might not be as simple as that. It is not so easy for a Government of two parties to maintain discipline. The economic problems of this government are about controlling debt, rather than inflation. That is a longer-term problem requiring longer-lasting economic pain. The effects of the Government’s economic medicine – spending cuts and taxation increases – will still be felt in 2015. The budget deficit is not scheduled to be in balance until 2016 and new (almost certainly unpopular) measures will be needed to tackle the welfare time bomb.

2013 to mid 2014 is likely to be a crucial period. That is when you should see a start to a reversal in trends in the opinion polls. Until then, we can ignore them as national news. Certainly, I will.

Posted in Conservative Party, Economy, General Election, Labour Party, Margaret Thatcher, Political History, UK Politics | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ian Parsley on the resignation of the two Harries as the UUP reels from more defections

Ian Parsley has written two posts in relation to the recent defections from the UUP. The latest was about Harry Hamilton. Both are worth a read. However, the first one, following the resignation of Harry Dunlop to the UUP slices like a knife through butter. Parsley compares the UUP to a business looking for a market, rather than putting itself in a position to promote its politics.

“It has been stated before on this blog that the UUP seems close to unique in the way that it seeks out a market, rather than positions itself to sell its case. I believe it is not coincidental that so many people in the current Leadership are businessmen (including farmers), for whom “seeking out a market” is the natural way of things. It is in business, but it is not in politics. This is the reason for the sheer mystification that while the UUP Leadership fiddles while seeking out its market, its operations staff are disappearing to its competitors who already have one.”

Read the whole article here

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