Liberal Unionism…Buried With O’Leary

“Romantic Ireland is dead and gone…its with O’Leary in the grave”.

I saw this headline on Slugger O’Toole today. A piece written by BBC Walker. I was almost tempted to read it. I didnt read the full article because I think the headline says so much more than the article can say.


What exactly is “liberal unionism”? I have grown up with that phrase and it never meant very much. Certainly in the 1960s, there were unionist politicians with the reputation of being “liberal”. It is of course a relative term…but usually applied to decent men who had a preference for Norn Iron as a part of the “United Kingdom” and thought the best way was to oppose the naked sectarianism that too often under-pinned a worthy cause and to encourage Catholics and nationalists to engage with Norn Iron. After all, things like health and social security provision were much better in 1960s Norn Iron than in 1960s Republic of Ireland.

But “liberal unionism” still seems too broad a term. I half-remember names and faces of Decent Men. Yet the Debate within 1960s unionism seems to be dominated by two men “liberal” Terence O’Neill and his nemisis Rev Ian Paisley.

O’Neill …the “liberal” became Prime Minister of Norn Iron who had an agenda of making Norn Iron more inclusive. This seems in retrospect to have been little more than sipping tea with Reverend Mothers in the staff rooms at Catholic Girls Schools. O’ Neill may not have been sectarian but he was certainly patronising. His belief that if a Catholic has a good house and job, he will be a good unionist is risible by 21st century standards but it seems a belief based in pragmatism rather than a genuine understanding of the Catholic position.

Certainly Decent Men like Porter and McIvor sat on unionist benches at Stormont…but as Ministers after 1969, any “liberal” instincts were swept aside and they found more release as High Court Judges.

Yet Phelim O’Neill, cousin of Terence, who steadfastly refused to have anything to do with the Orange Order and became a founding member of the Alliance Party is more fondly remembered. And yet there are others lost to History, like Bertie McConnell and Bob Nixon.

Yet Nixon deserves a special mention as the Stormont MP who revealed that unionists in Derry had lobbied to have the proposed second university sited in Coleraine, rather than their own city.

So there is a division at the heart of “liberal unionists”. People who were pragmatists enough to see that the Norn Iron state could not control a restless and growing minority. And people (like Bob Nixon) who were minded simply to do the right thing. Yet somehow these two attitudes merged as pro-O’Neill (circa 1966-69) and a common revulsion against the sectarian street theatre of the Paisleyites.

Effectively “liberal unionism” died with the overthrow of Terence O’Neill. Some would drift out of Politics and others would re-allign to form the Alliance Party.

Effectively Alliance was formed as a “liberal unionist” Party but the violence turned it into a coalition of unionists and “soft” nationalists which pursued a “cross-community” narrative. To some extent that Debate is ongoing within Alliance. But as the furore over Anna Lo making sympathetic noises about Irish Unity in 2014 showed…Alliance has firmly returned to its unionist origins.

Anna Lo WAS Alliance MLA for South Belfast. Paula Bradshaw IS Alliance MLA for South Belfast. I rest my case. Obviously unionism is muted but understood within Alliance. No point in rocking the cross-community boat.

But certainly pragmatic  “liberal unionists” have spent the past two decades courting and promoting the Alliance Party. Integrated Education is at the very core of liberal unionism.

The other side of “the pragmatic liberal unionism” is that Paisley-ism and its successor the Democratic Unionist Party ruined it all.

And this is what makes BBC Walkers article (or at least the headline so interesting). For any pragmatic unionist, who adopted “liberal unionism” and invested support in the Alliance Party , these are not the best of days. Unless DUP-SF intervene to save Alliance’s unworthy bacon, they are finished….no Justice Ministry and no Opposition.

But Pragmatists are….Pragmatists.

If “liberal unionism” has failed under O’Neill and David Ford, then the Pragmatists need new champions to make Norn Iron more British.

All the Pragmatists ever sought was (unionist) stability and the chosen programme was “liberal unionism” via Alliance puppets.

Stability. Stability. Stability.

As the headline suggests….Opposition is unstable and voting patterns may not change. The headline suggests that the best way for Norn Iron to survive is the “stability” of a DUP-Sinn Féin coalition.

“Real” liberal unionists rather than the “Pragmatic” liberal unionists must shudder at that prospect. And how nationalists and republicans should feel….thats a big question.

If Slugger O’Tooles favourite Party…Alliance…can no longer deliver the unionist Utopia….look out for some backtracking and some pro DUP-SF opinion pieces.


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The Power Of Columnists

Sometimes a blog post can be inspired by a comment made on a previous post.

So this post is in some way inspired by a remark made by commenter (sic) Wolfe Tone.

So….Irish News columnists….and newspaper columnists generally.

I dont suppose that I buy the Irish News more than once a month. I “should” buy it more often, if only to keep track of people I used to live beside or work with. Yes there are people who read the newspaper for the death notices. And do not underestimate the importance of this. I live too far away from people that I called colleagues and friends. And just last June, I bumped into one in Belfast and amid the usual “how is…..” There came the bombshell that a woman (42) had died some six months before.

Indeed  there have probably been three or four funerals since I retired in 2005, where people might have noticed my non-appearance. People were buried who would certainly have been at my funeral. Thats how I am ….not big on engaging with people but oddly saddened that people are buried without my showing up at the funeral.

The Irish News is an excellent newspaper for death notices. It is almost a West Belfast cliché. But spending eighty pence every day just to find out that everybody I ever knew is alive and well seems extravagant…..although when I do read the Irish News, I am always surprised that people die in alphabetical order.

But for the best part of twenty years, I bought the English newspaper, The Guardian. It is broadly supportive of Labour and Liberal Democrat…typically wishy washy stuff. So reading columnists like Ian Aiken and Hugo Young and their successors like Polly Toynbe and Simon Jenkins was a means of me having my view of the world confirmed.

So having watched the morning news on TV, I somehow needed Aiken, Young, Toynbe and Jenkins to frame it all in a way that made sense to my view of the world.

I retired in 2005 so I no longer buy The Guardian for the morning commute.

But it is strange that The Irish News has never engaged me in the same way. The Troubles MADE The Irish News. It was an embarrasing apology for a morning newspaper in the 1960s. EIght (sometimes six) broadsheet pages….with death notices on page 2, greyhound racing on page 7 and horse racing on page 8. Never underestimate the power of a good racing tipster.

But all of a sudden after 1969, the Irish News death notices were filled with “Second Lts killed in action” and just as suddenly if you lived in Ardoyne, Crossmaglen or Andytown, the Irish News was the newspaper with the contacts and the sources….andeven more importantly ….the historic and personal understanding.

By any standards, The Irish News is a damned good newspaper, better than its unionist rivals, The Belfast Telegraph and News Letter.

And yet I cannot warm to it. None of the columnists (the best Alex Kane is a unionist) really seem to speak for me. Rarely do any of them write a column that makes me say “thats what I think”. Brian Feeney is formerly SDLP but now downright hostile. Likewise Tom Kelly is formerly SDLP but he is boring. Newton Emerson is merely a “slabber”.

There are of course others but I have never bothered learning their names.

It is not that much different on Slugger O’Toole, the allegedly leading Blog. Look at any headline there on say Alliance Party, court decision, integrated education, SDLP and look at the author, Mick Fealty, BBC Walker, Pete Baker, Chris Donnelly, Alan Meban….and there is little point in reading the main body of the article. You will find no surprises.

Maybe thats why I blog. I dont see my view of Norn Iron or the world out there so…I just do it myself.


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SDLP: We All Woke Up Feeling Better

“A dog walking on its hind legs…its not done well but youre surprised that is done at all” (Dr Johnson).

The Norn Iron Executive at Stormont is a bit like that. A lousy government but (for those of us who remember the bad years) it is a small miracle that it is happening at all…nationalists and unionists sharing power.

Of course it has all changed since 1998. UUP was the lead player on the unionist side and SDLP was the lead player on the nationalist side. The British and Irish governments felt that things would be more secure with DUP and Sinn Féin leading the tribes…and thats what we have had for years. UUP and SDLP cannot be excused for not seeing this coming.

But of course from St Andrews, via Hillsborough to Fresh Start, the Good Friday Agreement has been hollowed out. The euphoria, especially on the nationalist side has long gone.

Yet I get a sense that things changed yesterday. Or more likely there is a possibility of change.

I make no apology for saying that SDLP should have gone into Opposition in 2011. You all know the reason but I will say it again. SDLP and UUP had 14 and 16 MLAs respectively and one seat each at the Executive but Alliance with 8 MLAs took two Executive seats.
At that point Democracy was turned on its head. We should have walked away.
Does anyone seriously want to defend that shameful gerrymander?
Certainly Alliance claim the extra portfolio Justice was a tribute to their unique neutrality…not a gift from DUP-Sinn Féin but rather a vote in the Assembly itself. But lets get real here….they sought, received and maintained an advantage over two other democratic parties.
They sewed their Downfall…they reaped their Downfall.
What goes round…comes round.
Yes, Belfast Karma…serves the bastards right.

There is no real point in feeling sorry for the Alliance Party. They are sorry enough for themselves. More to the point, they just dont get it. As Alex Kane points out the sense of Entitlement in the Alliance Party is astonishing.

Has Election 2016 been a game-changer? Too soon to tell. But it os shaping up nicely. The reduction of the number of chairs around the Executive table has raised the threshold for entitlement to a portfolio in a power sharing Executive.
The magic number is TEN….and despite talking up an extra seat in East Belfast, North Down, South Belfast and South Antrim and breakthrus in North Belfast and Upper Bann….Alliance never even came close. They have stagnated under David Ford. The heady days of Naomi Long taking East Belfast at Westminster in 2010, looks like a one-off. Look around the Alliance MLAs and there does not seem much talent available.
Nevertheless Alliance have some bare-faced cheek. Now without a portfolio, they tried to negotiate holding on to Justice….making the DUP-SF an offer they couldnt refuse, they would generously “take” Justice if some other parts of the Alliance manifesto got into the DUP-SF Programme for Government.
Truly astonishing.
Let me be clear.
The meeting between DUP-SF and Alliance lasted less than ten minutes. They were chased out of Stormont Castle.
From “bare faced cheek” to the “Bum’s Rush”.
Still Alliance are optimists. Their Party meeting last night decided to adjourn without making a decision on the Justice Ministry. Over the weekend, David Ford will sit by his phone, hoping from a call from Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness.

Yet it seems that in this curious game of Bluff and Double Bluff, Arlene and Martin have a name or names in the frame.
Independent Unionist Claire Sugden MLA (East Derry). It smacks of desperation but she has already fought off a UUP challenge to take her seat. And if I was a high-ranking civil servant in the Department of Justice, I would be rubbing my hands at the prospect of “handling” a young and naive MLA.
Alternatively a Green MLA might take the DUP-SF shilling. But really Steven Agnew or Claire Bailey should really keep their distance.
Alternatively DUP-SF might find a willing Quangocrat outside the Assembly.
Or…as is being floated… A shared Ministry with a DUP and SF Minister.

John McCallister, the Independent Unionist who lost his seat deserves some credit for making Opposition possible. Mike Nesbitt of UUP also deserves credit for leading his Party out of the Executive last year and maintaining that position.
But it takes two Parties to be in Government and it takes at least two to be in Opposition.
An Opposition is after all an alternative Government. So the SDLP decision to walk away is crucial.
On a personal level I would not like to see too much agreement between UUP and SDLP. Leaving aside the unionist-nationalist problem, there is the much bigger problem that the UUP is a right-wing conservative Party and SDLP leans (increasingly) to the left.
As for Alliance…so what? They dont have a mandate to be in government or be part of the Opposition. Besides…even this weekend they still WANT to be in the Government.

The reaction to the SDLP decision seems mostly favourable. Certainly the Party is united. But it has been coming…a minority favoured it after 2011 but numbers have been growing and certainly the pre-election mood music was for Opposition.
Obviously a Party cannot go into an election “Vote for Us…we dont want to form a government”.
The Party fought on a manifesto and after election put its programme to DUP and SF. Their pwn “programme” is threadbare and the sole policy seems to be to stay in office.

But Sinn Féin has been savage about SDLP.
As I have said before SDLP membership of the Executive gives cover to Sinn Féin. Nominally every Executive since 1998 has been a four or five Party coalition as defined in the Good Friday Agreement. But increasingly the electoral power of DUP and Sinn Féin and the over-representation of Alliance (stooges to DUP-SF) has marginalised the Agreement itself…and marginalised UUP and SDLP. I would go so far as to say that at times it is uncomfortable and even humiliating…and SF has certainly enjoyed it all.
But there are deeper reasons for SF hostility. Having ridiculed and marginalised the “Stoops”, why should it bother Sinn Féin that SDLP have walked away?

Well I think that the numbers of DUP and SF MLAs is a factor.
THIRTY is the key number. That is the number of MLAs from one tribe required to block legislation. DUP have 38 MLAs and SF have just 28 MLAs.
Never has power-sharing looked so one-sided.
Remember that talk of Martin McGuinness as First Minister?
Remember that talk of Gerry Adams as Taoiseach?
Remember how Sinn Féin styles itself as the All-Ireland party. As Catherine Seeley MLA (Sinn Féin) put it…


Alas you cannot see it on Twitter as it was quickly deleted. Presumably someone in the Sinn Féin Press Office pointed out that SF would not negotiate about government in the Republic but condemns SDLP for doing the same in north.
Its a topsy-turvy world.
Sinn Féin would rather govern Norn Iron than Republic of Ireland.
Still…a government run by DUP and Sinn Féin is hardly a coalition of equals.
The precedents dont seem good.
Look what happened the Irish Green Party, junior coalition Party with Fianna Fáil in 2010.
Look what happened the British Lib Dems, junior coalition Party with the Tories in 2015.
Look what happened the Irish Labour Party, junior coalition Party with Fine Gael in 2016.

Does anybody in Sinn Féin understand History?

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The GB Newe Solution?

The older I get …the more I think I have seen everything there is to see…at least twice.

So SDLP are heading for Opppsition benches. And Alliance are going nowhere.

Would Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness really be confident about a Justice Minister if they did not have a plan in place. Possibly talks with the Greens and/or Claire Sugden (Independent Unionist).

Let me mention G B Newe. He was a Catholic who actually served as a junior Minister at the fag end of the “old Stormont”.He was that rarest of things…a Catholic Unionist and was brought into the cabinet to show that Brian Faulkner’s regime had Catholic support as well as being “liberal”. Newe was unelected and Catholics regarded him as convenient “Uncle Tom”.

Have we a new Newe….so to speak?

An unelected person ready on the sidelines to perform the duties of Justice Minister?

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Sending Out SDLP Membership Forms

A busy evening sending out SDLP membership forms to Mr Mick Fealty and Mr Brian BBC Walker of Slugger O’Toole.

I will be honest. I never really had either of them down as SDLP supporters but they are certainly full of advice to my Party. To be even more honest, I dont see any reason to heed the advice of our enemies.

Still it will only cost Mr Fealty £20 per annum for SDLP to pay him any heed. Mr Walker, a pensioner like myself can make his opinion heard within SDLP for just a tenner.

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Talking to rank and file members of SDLP over the past 48 hours, I get the impression that the Party would prefer to be in Opposition than in Government for this Assembly term.

Some caveats…most of the people I have been talking to were always in favour of Opposition but importantly people seem disenchanted with the outworking of the Good Friday Agreement. It is not just “sour grapes” that SDLP would only have only a marginal role …one Executive seat…in any Government. There is a genuine feeling that the Good Friday Agreement as signed in 1998 has been “hollowed out” by amendments at St Andrews, Hillsborough and “Fresh Start”.

As I have said before, the right moment for SDLP to go into Opposition was in 2011, when Democracy was stood on its head to facilitate the DUP-Sinn Féin coalition. The Alliance Party was given an the Justice portfolio….thus 52,000 Alliance voters had two Executive seats while 95,000 SDLP voters and 95,000 UUP voters had only one Executive seat each. A travesty that shames the saintly Alliance Party.

With the number of Government Departments reduced, the threshold for entitlement to a seat in the Executive has been raised above the level for Alliance to claim any except the DUP-SF gift of Justice. Manners have been put upon Alliance.

The striking thing about last weeks election is just how unchanged the political landscape is. DUP (38), UUP (16) and Alliance (8) go back to Stormont with exactly the same number of MLAs. Sinn Féin (28) and SDLP (12) go back with one and two less respectively. The five -party coalition must be partly to blame…if nothing changes, there is little point voting. The institutions expect and maintain the five party coalition. It is certainly stable but just as certainly it is stagnant.
UUP actually left the coalition a few months ago and as expected they have said they will not serve in the next Executive.

SDLP are still “negotiating” with DUP annd Sinn Féin to get them to accept some progressive policies. It looks like shadow boxing.
Neither DUP or SF look likely to accept SDLP proposals, which sets the scene for one of those silly parade down the great Stormont staircase so that Colum Eastwood, flanked by his Assembly team, announces that SDLP will go into Opposition.
It would be better if we did not have sham negotiations.
The best SDLP could get out of agreeing to go into government is just one Executive seat and a paid Special Advisor.
Really the Party that does best out of SDLP going into government is Sinn Féin. It provides cover for SF to say that it is a genuine multi-party arrangement rather than a DUP-SF coalition.
There are complications. There is no space for Opposition…and the numerically superior UUP have got there first. At present the arrangement where leading unionist party (DUP) sits across the horse-shoe shaped benches from the leading nationalist party (SF) is meant to demonstrate the Grand Coalition…but any Opposition should face the Government. Unsurprisingly Mike Nesbitt wants the furniture re-arranged.
And of course there is the question of MONEY. In any civilised Democracy the Opposition should be state-funded…to pay for the research and staffing that an alternative government needs.
But…will the numerically stronger UUP constitute an Official Oppostion that is right wing and unionist get more funds than SDLP that is left wing and nationaliist.

I could do without sham negotiations which are expected to take two weeks. I strongly suspect that there is a second set of talks going on between SDLP and the Norn Iron Office to establish ground rules before SDLP decides to walk away from Government.
Certainly a DUP-SF coalition with Alliance clinging on to Justice (gifted by the DUP-SF in defiance of a mandate) underscores what the Government has been for some years. As Mark Durkan said, we live in a one-Party state with an orange wing and a green wing.
And SDLP really need to stop providing Sinn Féin…and the Alliance Party …with cover.

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So…EU Referendum

Lest we forget…we all go back to the polling stations in just six weeks to vote on whether the “United Kingdom” should leave the “European Union”.

At this point in time, I am undecided but the other five adult members of my family are…surprisingly in my view….voting to Leave.

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