Jan 10

“Haass and after: What way now?”

It is fair to say a very antagonistic anti-Unionist narrative developed amongst both the mainstream and online media  very quickly after the collapse of the Haass Talks.

Now, as Unionists we can sit back and as and accept this, we can even moan “It ain’t fair, as usual no one likes us, we don’t care”  or…. as pro-Union advocates we can get off our backsides and attempt to see how we can frame the continuing discussion on the past, emblems and ultimately governance of our part of the United Kingdom

Regular readers of Open Unionism will be well aware of one of the speakers below, our regular contributor Andrew Charles. David Hoey, Jeff Dudgeon and Professor Aughey have also been good friends of this blog and helped out both myself and Henry on numerous occasions in the past.

We, therefore, wholeheartedly recommend the seminar below (and apologise for the late notice!):

‘HAASS AND AFTER: WHAT WAY NOW?’

The Haass/O’Sullivan talks have ended, and the blame game is starting.

This is not the time to sit and wait for the next event to come around.

Two things are absolutely necessary.

First, there should be an assessment of the Haass text, now that the dust has settled.  And second, we should see whether there are any aspects on which we can take the initiative.

That is why this one-day seminar on Saturday, 11 January 2014 is being arranged by a group outside the new majoritarian orthodoxy and structures in the legal, human rights and academic worlds. It will be held under the well-known Chatham House Rule, to allow for open discussion and also for unattributed reporting – “When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed”.

The ’round table’ is for a critique of the Haass Process generally and draft 7 (the published draft) in particular; it is not proposed to make the position of any political party the specific target of critique; its purpose is not for ‘point scoring’ against any of the Panel Participants; and those invited are understood to be participating in their individual capacities and not to be representing the views of any party or organisation of which they may be a member.

Our aim is to encourage discourse and, if feasible, to prepare a compendium of papers and perhaps a summary of discussions on a rapporteur basis.

The venue is the Hilsborowe Room (1st floor) at Malone House in the Barnett Demesne, BT9 5PB. The event will run from 10am to 4.15pm with an optional light lunch from 12.30-1.30 (if booked £10; there is a café in the building). Attendance fee £10.

Those invited will be a mixture of reasonable people drawn from the world of academia, politics and political advisers, journalism and beyond; some historians, some lawyers, some commentators tending not to the statist or transitional justice end of the discussion but more to the reasonable; to reconciliation; and agreeing to disagree. The ultimate purpose is to get a working form of governance for Northern Ireland. One that understands our different pasts.

The speakers will be Henry Patterson, Austen Morgan, Jeff Dudgeon, Andrew Charles, Neil Faris, Arthur Aughey, David Hoey and Bill Smith. Brian Garrett will act as chair/facilitator.

Please remember to bring your own downloaded copy of draft 7. There will be at least ten minutes for discussion and questions after each presentation plus morning and afternoon round-ups.

Mission statement: The group does not represent any consensus of beliefs. We do not expect that listeners will sympathise with all the sentiments they hear, for some of the audience will flatly disagree with others, but we hold that while keeping clear of mere vagaries, we can do more to inform public opinion by a broad hospitality to divergent ideas than by identifying ourselves with one school. We do not accept responsibility for the views expressed in any presentation or discussion.  What we do accept is the responsibility for giving them a chance to be stated.

 

 

PROGRAMME – TIMES

10-10.15am Chairman’s opening remarks

10.15-10.45am Jeffrey Dudgeon

10.45-11.15am Neil Faris

11.15-11.45am Andrew Charles

11.45-12.15pm Henry Patterson

12.15-12.30pm Morning round-up

12.30-1.30pm Lunch

1.30- 2pm Austen Morgan

2-2.30pm David Hoey

2.30-3pm Arthur Aughey

3-3.30pm Bill Smith

3.30-4pm Afternoon round up

4.15pm Close

MORNING

Brian Garrett (Chair/facilitator) is a Senior Consultant Solicitor with Elliott, Duffy, Garrett (and the firm’s co-founder), Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators, a Parole Commissioner (Northern Ireland) until 2013, and a former chair of the Northern Ireland Labour Party. A Deputy County Court Judge until 2010, he has been President of the Irish Association for Cultural Economic and Social Relations, a member of the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights in Northern Ireland and is chairman of the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Annaghmakerrig, Co Monaghan. He was a Visiting Fellow in International Affairs at Harvard.

‘Haass and O’Sullivan – How they went about it’

Jeffrey Dudgeon was the successful plaintiff at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg whose 1981 judgment led to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Northern Ireland. He is the author of Roger Casement: The Black Diaries – With a Study of his Background, Sexuality, and Irish Political Life (2002) and one-time Northern secretary of the Irish Association. Awarded an MBE in the 2012 Honours List for services to the LGBT community in Northern Ireland, he was one of the Ulster Unionist Party’s representatives at the Haass talks. His website http://jeffdudgeon.com/ carries extensive material on the continuing Casement controversies and current political issues. Chairman of South Belfast UUA, he is a prospective candidate for Belfast City Council’s Balmoral DEA. He is speaking in a personal capacity.

‘The Hidden Dangers of Haass Draft 7’

Neil Faris practises as a solicitor (on a part time basis) in Belfast in public law and areas of commercial and property law. He also advises and assists other solicitors in major transaction work – he does not act directly for clients. Neil has extensive experience of public law in regard to Northern Ireland’s past – and possible future. As an example he was a member of the Bill of Rights Forum, nominated by CBI Northern Ireland.

Flags and Parades: the Old Adage’

Andrew Charles graduated from Queen’s University Belfast in 2006 with a BA Hons degree in Politics and Social Policy. He worked in academia before completing a postgraduate qualification in Social Research Methods in 2009. From 2009 and 2012 he worked in public affairs and consultancy, largely based at Parliament Buildings. He now works in the public sector and is completing a PhD on Northern Ireland and Cyprus.

Flags and parades, two of the three issues Haass was tasked with ‘resolving’ both appear to be very current, yet are also an old adage. They were delegated to Haass effectively after the year that was; beginning with the ‘flag protests’ from December 2012 and the parades dispute in North Belfast when three Ligoniel lodges were not permitted to return by their normal route in July. Yet, flags and parades have been visible, public displays of identity for centuries and are not unique to Northern Ireland. The presenter seeks to ask: could the Haass delegates really resolve some very old issues which are central to competing notions of identity and which are effectively ‘tools’ of conflict?

‘The Past is not the main problem: A Critique of Haass’s ‘Contending with the Past’

Henry Patterson is Professor Emeritus of Irish Politics at UU and author of numerous books and articles on modern Irish history and politics. His most recent book is ‘Ireland’s Violent Frontier: The Border and Anglo-Irish Relations during the Troubles’ (Palgrave, 2013).

According to the Haass document, Northern Ireland is prevented from moving forward by the incubus of the past. This presentation argues that the problems over ‘Contending with the Past’ lie not in the past or our history but in present real political conflicts. If we look at the origins of the Haass initiative it is clear that the past as defined in the document had very little to do with the forces that led to the initiative. At its core were the flag protests and the longer-standing sore over marches. It is now claimed that Unionists’ prevarication or rejection of the document is being determined by narrow electoral concerns and the pressure of extreme loyalism. There is an element of truth in this but equally it can be argued that both Sinn Fein and the SDLP have embraced the document because it is structurally and tonally more sympathetic to their understanding of the Troubles and the way ahead.  Arguments over Contending with the Past reflect not so much the real difficulties which truth recovery presents in a society after decades of violence but rather the specifically political problem that the dominant ways of presenting the issues of the past are seen as structurally biased against the state and unionists.

AFTERNOON

‘What’s Wrong with Haass?’

Austen Morgan is a barrister in London and Belfast, and author of ‘The Belfast Agreement: a practical legal analysis’ (London 2000).

David Hoey studied Law at QUB and was employed in Public Affairs and international corporate marketing/PR for many years before returning to live in Northern Ireland. He worked from 1998-2008 on Parades issues in Londonderry and elsewhere. No is longer a member of any political party, he blogs and tweets as @thedissenter.

‘Understanding backwards, living forward: ARKIV and moving on from Haass/O’Sullivan’

Arthur Aughey is Professor of Politics at the University of Ulster and Senior Fellow at the Centre for British Politics at the University of Hull. He was formerly a member of the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council, of the NI committee of the Irish Association and until recently a member of the NI Advisory Committee of the British Council. In 2000-2001, he was part of the DCAL Working Group on the Bicentenary of the Irish Act of Union. He was also a founder member of the Cadogan Group which provided an intellectual analysis of Northern Ireland politics during the 1990s and early 2000s. He has published widely on Northern Ireland politics, British Conservatism and constitutional change in the UK.

‘Haass: ‘No’ or ‘Yes But’?’

Dr. Bill Smith is a political scientist and public policy analyst with extensive experience in government. Born in Belfast, he earned his doctorate at Stanford. He has worked for the Northern Ireland government, Assembly and the European Commission. He is a Senior Research Fellow at the School of Politics, International Relations and Philosophy at Queens University Belfast. Bill is the author of The British State and the Northern Ireland Crisis 1969-1973: from Violence to Power-sharing (US Institute of Peace, 2011).

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Jan 07

Karl Johnson: Rediscovering the purpose of nationality

Karl Johnson is a freelance writer with an interest in politics and history. He also works as an illustrator in Buckinghamshire.

The worth of our threatened union lies in the sense of purpose its supporters give it. The term “sense of purpose” must be given a broad meaning for this argument, as the principle at stake in this year’s referendum is a simple one: shared endeavour over nationalism, i.e. no-one should have their life frustrated, or otherwise made harder by unnecessary barriers between regions. We would not care for this principle unless it could deliver possibilities and profit, and Unionists by definition consider it sufficiently important to warrant recognition and protection in our politics.

The message of Unionism is an optimistic one that speaks of potential. The arrival of the modern unified state has been one of the greatest prompts of economic and societal growth in history, and while to frame it in this kind of language may risk seeming ideological or even naïve, there is no point in downplaying the merits of our position.

An unapologetic belief in purpose and progress was once embedded in European politics, and Unionists should embrace it. Of all the attributes of modern Unionism, it is this sense of principle that compares most favourably with the nihilism of our era, and the undignified point scoring of the SNP and Sinn Fein. In the referendum campaign, conviction politics must not be undervalued. As the nationalist’s message is reductionist in essence, the cynicism and demagoguery we’ve come to associate with politics as run by PR firms and advertising executives will aid them more than us.

Our message is not reductionist, but progressive, so our position requires a greater level of justification. As modern states are man-made creations, they must serve a purpose to be durable. It is not enough for them to simply exist. They must do something for their inhabitants. A nation presented as an abstract idea, like a museum piece, is not worth anything to anyone.

There are many political unions in Europe today, but while some are in trouble, threatened by separatists creating a kind of legitimised instability, others are very healthy. Spain, an ancient kingdom and a well-established state, sometimes appears to be very close to falling apart. Germany, a much younger union with a more turbulent history, appears to be just fine. The difference in the condition of these two great projects lies only in the tangible benefits they bring to their citizens, which influences any sense of personal loyalty or bias. Currently, Germany is known throughout the continent to be a good ticket for the future. But in contrast, many Spaniards may be saying “What exactly is my country doing for its people?” Support for Catalonian independence has grown in proportion to Spain’s economic performance.

This is why it isn’t enough for the leaders of Better Together to just look at the polls, play the game etc. and hope to just pull through- even if they are favourites to win. A political construct as large as the UK needs to continually justify its existence. Does the UK enforce our wishes and principles and protect from threats? Does it foster a sense of identity and give its citizens opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have? If the answers to these questions are currently unsatisfactory, what do Unionist parties intend to do about it?

Unified states are coagulations of economic and political power bound by institutions. They are not works of art, but tools with a job to do for their peoples, which may be defined most broadly as one of exploiting opportunity, or at least making it possible. The Westminster parliament has long lost any recognition of this kind of responsibility amongst its members, and the new devolved administrations never had it at all. Stripped of a sense of purpose, Unionist parties will have nothing to say against the reductionism of separatists. Retaining relevancy is the only means of future proofing.

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Dec 17

One Englishman’s view of Unionism

Ken Stevens is a retired admin manager from Oxford. He was born and raised in London, but moved away after marrying a “Scots-born Unionist Brit” with whom he has three children, and has since lived in various places including the Shetland Islands. He regards himself as a “one-nation centrist conservative”, and votes UKIP.

I’m a Unionist who moaned to Henry Hill that this site – and his regular ConservativeHome feature “Red, White and Blue” – seemed rather oriented from the perspective of three of the four components of the UK, ignoring my bit of it. His response, in effect, was to do something about it, so here is one Englishman’s view of Unionism.

Born almost seven decades ago, I grew up in the subconscious understanding that I was British (which to me included Northern Ireland), happening to be in the part called England. Latterday developments have caused me instead to feel overtly English, within a construct called Britain. What changed my attitude was not some blinding flash of proud realisation of English Nationalism,but a reaction to the fact that two of the four territories showed a distinct taste for wanting to do their own thing, expressed first in devolution and now in Scotland’s case possibly to leave the Union.

Some in Northern Ireland also want to leave the Union but that is for different historical reasons, which I can at least understand (though without in any way condoning the atrocious manner of expressing that desire). Ulster Unionists are self-evident in their desire to stay in, perhaps the only visible ongoing element of the UK to proclaim so!

In a shorter span of time than the merger of England and Wales and their subsequent union with Scotland, the USA was created, admitted more territories, and survived a comparatively recent civil war. Yet there is no serious sentiment in any US state to secede from their union – indeed, Puerto Rico wishes to join. So how did it go so wrong in our case? I’m not suggesting that the Union was perfect prior to devolution, but that instead of improving unity, devolution has only served to erode it.

Given that we’re where we’re at, with devolution rather than where I would have preferred to have been after centuries of Union, the way ahead has to involve some form of federalism. I am a member of the Campaign for an English Parliament, as I subscribe to the notion that that the present set-up is democratically unfair to England. However, that is only one element of a necessary wider UK revision that I believe should happen.

The potential difficulty with federalism is that it could institutionalise our separate existences to have four wholly unconnected national parliaments and governments over-arched by a separate, small UK forum and government handling a few pan-UK responsibilities such as defence and foreign affairs and entailing yet another set of directly elected representatives. Therefore I favour the idea of just one set of representatives sitting part-time in their respective national parliaments and part-time all together in UK session, rather than having Westminster MPs and also MSPs, etc. One less tier of representation – what’s not to like!

Such a significant change would require a rewriting of the constitutional rule book. There should be a codified written constitution, something I have long advocated regardless of devolution, because it seems that the present mish-mash is too dispersed and enables politicians to interpret it conveniently to suit their purposes. Also, there are various constitutional matters that have been dealt with or are under consideration in isolation from each other, such as voting systems, Lords reform, the EU and devolution. Reappraisal of our structure and codifying it should be aimed at giving us all a refreshed, coherent sense of UK identity that nevertheless facilitates celebration of our various national identities within the Union.

Changes of presentational detail should also be effected. Some examples:

  • Why after all this time is it still The Bank of England, rather than The Bank of the United Kingdom?
  • Why are there Secretaries of State for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but not for England?
  • Why is our side of the British-Irish Council comprised of representatives of the UK government and separately designated ones of the administrations of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey – but not England? (IoM and CI are not even in the UK, for heaven’s sake!)
  • Why do Her Majesty’s guards regiments consist of Scots, Irish and Welsh ones but not English Guards?
  • Why do the main parties have a UK organisation plus separately designated Scottish and Welsh ones?

Yes, I know there are various historical reasons but the whole point of reappraisal is to upgrade and update. Those kinds of continuing nomenclatures perpetuate the impression that UK = England… plus some appendages.

By the way, can I forestall any suggestion of a “solution” to the fact of England’s disparity of size compared to the other UK nations by splitting it into bite-sized chunks akin to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and directly represented as such in the UK Parliament. Sorry lads and lasses but you’re not going to resolve your perception problem by abolishing my nation as a single entity!

So, that’s my ingenious master plan for the future of the UK. Do I believe that this or an alternative grand scheme will come to pass?

No.

The more likely scenario is of a halfhearted sop such as “English Votes for English Laws” and/or a parliamentary English Grand Committee, though not until after the referendum so as not to spook Scotland beforehand. Scotland will then vote No, though with a sizeable Yes minority, and be rewarded with yet more devolution, which the government hopes will kick the topic into the long grass for a while.

It will gradually thereafter be perceived in Scotland as such a small step onward to independence that when the inevitable rematch occurs further down the line, the Yes vote will prevail. In the meantime, popular sentiment in England will be so disenchanted by the Union that it won’t give a damn about Scotland’s departure.

Where is the visionary statesman who can, hopefully, prove me wrong?

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Dec 16

One way or another, after 2014 the Scots can expect a colder England

Lucius WinslowLucius Winslow has an MA in politics, and is currently studying to be a solicitor. Follow him on Twitter @Lucius_Winslow

At the risk of (further) boring people by providing yet more spiel about Alex Salmond’s big fat Scottish divorce I wish to venture into the counterfactual, namely, what England’s reaction is likely to be after the vote.

Much has been made of the possible repercussions of a yes vote. The divvying up of the national debt, the ramifications for sterling, the nuclear submarines on the Clyde etc. The British government’s official line is that no hypotheticals have been discussed, and there simply has not been any contingency planning. Nobody believes this fad, but it is vaguely useful in denying Salmond the ‘inevitability’ argument.

But if Scotland were to vote in the affirmative, what would happen in London is fairly predictable. Having been rejected by Scotland, British politicians would be in no mood to grant the sort of nonsense concessions Wee Eck seems to want, such as a seat on the Bank of England. So Scotland would have to adjust to hard reality in any case. However it is likely to be even harsher than that, as the rest of the Kingdom would be dominated by Conservatives, based in England, with no sympathy for any part of Salmond’s agenda, and a determination to stick up for their own country’s privileges, even if that were to inflict actual pain on a new independent Scotland. This much is somewhat obvious.

But what happens if (when!) the Scots vote no? Well once the laughter over Salmond’s humiliation dies down, and the relief in Downing Street over the Union is spent, a new emotion is likely to dominate the Edinburgh-Westminster devolution discourse: contemptuous disinterest.

This is most likely to be an asymmetric phenomenon. The Scottish establishment, particularly the SNP, will continue to press London on all manner of issues, asking for concessions and subsidies hither and thither. But the English political class, much like the English public (particularly in the South) are likely to spurn them utterly.

The reasoning is fairly straightforward: when asked to stay or go they stayed – they can’t then continue to whine about the vagaries of Union life. So whereas previously there has been obfuscation, delay, or indeed concession, in future Westminster is likely just to say no. For they know that they no longer have to fear the ultimate bogeyman of the plebiscite.

Now, it is possible that a closer vote, with a narrow victory for the Better Together, could continue to yield pressure. But this is unlikely; constitutional fatigue would set in amongst the political class in a way which it has already filtered into the wider public.

For that’s one thing this referendum has created; the foreseeable end of English patience. The Scots can vote yes or no in 2014. The English are likely to say no regardless thereafter.

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Dec 04

We need a flag for Northern Ireland

Luke SprouleLuke Sproule is a politics graduate of University College London and a postgraduate journalism student at Cardiff University. He blogs on all aspects of politics, with a particular focus on Northern Ireland, Labour and post-conflict societies, and is a card-carrying member of the Labour Party.

Like many of the suggestions made by Richard Haass the proposal for a new flag for Northern Ireland is likely to be met with disdain from most of the political spectrum.

True, Alliance and NI21 (and perhaps the Greens) may well back it, but it would be surprising to see Sinn Fein, the DUP or the Ulster Unionists chomping at the bit to start in motion a process to create a new, neutral emblem.

The SDLP’s position is more difficult to guess, but their track record on flags and emblems suggests a traditional nationalist approach is more likely than not.

But if the unionist parties turn down the opportunity to help come up with a new flag for the province then they are missing a trick, for it can only help strengthen the union.

Peter Robinson and Mike Nesbitt would, I imagine, not agree. Their position seems firmly that the union flag is the only flag of Northern Ireland and any flag which could “challenge” the union flag would lead to a dilution of their British identity (and the perceived Britishness of Ulster).

But this need not be the case, and by calling the bluff of nationalists there is a victory to be won not just for the union but for Northern Ireland itself.

For Sinn Fein would find it hard to mount a reasonable case against such a flag. True we would no doubt see bluster from the party alluding to the heartfelt republican belief the tricolour is the only flag of Ireland and the Irish people, but this argument is fairly easily defeated.

Why should the “six counties” not have its own flag? If there is to be a Northern Ireland Assembly within a future 32-county Irish state then will that autonomous province not have its own regional identity (look at the effectively artificial creations such as the Australian Northern Territory for example)?

And why should an opportunity to replace the union flag as the only official flag of Northern Ireland be spurned? Sinn Fein would no doubt argue that there is no need, using the tricolour as their argument, but it is a weak one.

The tricolour is no less divisive in Northern Ireland than the union flag so they cannot (or at least should not be allowed) to pretend that replacing both symbols would be unacceptable.

For unionists the benefits are simple. A new flag, which would have to be accepted by all in a civic capacity, would be part of a process of ending constant arguments over the display of symbols. Put the new flag of Northern Ireland on every public building and demands to display the tricolour lose credibility.

A new flag would, in the long run, also increase attachment to Northern Ireland, rather than to either the United Kingdom or the Republic of Ireland and would be likely to promote acceptance of the status quo, hardly a bad thing for unionists.

Young nationalists are much likely to be convinced by pragmatic arguments for the union if they do not feel they are having to swallow contentious symbols such as the union flag.

And, of course, it would also bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the United Kingdom. Scotland, Wales and England have their own national flags, and yet are firmly part of the UK (unless one argues that Scottish independence is built around love of the saltire).

Both sides would also still be able to claim their traditional flags if they wanted. The union flag would remain the flag of the UK, and the unionist parties could stand in front of it at conference. It could still fly from lamposts on the Twelfth. The tricolour would no doubt still fly at Casement Park and be paraded at commemorative marches.

But it would not be the flag of the state, and that is what matters. Gradually it would become the flag of the Northern Ireland football and Commonwealth games teams. It could fly alongside the tricolour at the Aviva Stadium.

Of course the argument remains that this is a politicians’ issue, and that most people in Northern Ireland wouldn’t feel any attachment to a new flag. But then again most people don’t feel an attachment to the tricolour or the union flag either. In any case people’s attachment to the flag in the short term is secondary to its benefits in the long term.

So the DUP and UUP should jump at the chance to take a step away from the perceived creep of republican and nationalist symbols into public spaces. The public space should not be neutral, it should be unashamedly Northern Irish.

Editor’s Note: You can see some proposed flags for Northern Ireland at this Facebook page.

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Dec 02

Red, White, and Blue: October 2013

Red White and BlueIn January Open Unionism’s editor, Henry Hill, took up a weekly column with popular website Conservative Home, discussing the Union, devolved politics and related issues from an explicitly Conservative perspective. Follow him on Twitter @HCH_Hill

The column is published every Wednesday. Linked below are his August, columns, with previews. September and October will follow in the coming days.

(02/10/2013) Boris leads the charge for metropolitan ‘English devolution’

ConHome’s annual ‘Rally for Boris’ is always an extremely popular event, but I confess that as I slipped out of the Scottish Conservative reception in order to make it I felt a little guilty. My aim at conference is normally to try to attend as much Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish stuff as I can. Wandering off to watch Boris, whose love-letters to London are enjoyable but seldom relevant to this column, felt something like a dereliction of duty.

It was to my delight, therefore, that Boris used the crescendo of his address to delegates to throw himself headlong into the West Lothian Question.

He has teamed up with the leadership of other ‘core cities’ – whose ranks include Leeds, Newcastle, Bristol and Nottingham, to demand that they be devolved substantial tax-raising powers. In his words: “When you look at the role of cities as the motors of the economy, distinctive places with a political identity, visible authority and leadership structures, they’re the obvious vehicle for English devolution.” (Read more…)

(09/10/2013) Cross-border fraudsters ‘abusing’ Northern Irish health service

Up to 80,000 more people could be registered to use the NHS in Northern Ireland than live in the province, according to a new anti-fraud drive launched by Edwin Poots, the Health Minister at Stormont. If true, this could becosting the province anywhere from £48 million to over £250 million.

UK residents are entitled to free NHS care in the six counties, and NI residents are issued medical cards which confirm their eligibility for such treatment. Citizens of the Republic of Ireland, under ordinary circumstances, are not. Unlike the UK, Irish healthcare is not always free at the point of delivery. Some homes along the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic have far more people registered for medical cards than could reasonably be expected to be living there – sometimes with different surnames.

As well as being a drain on Northern Ireland’s overstretched finances, such fraud is particularly baffling because an Irish citizen on UK soil will receive medical treatment free of charge in any event, with the bill being recouped from the Irish exchequer. (Read more…)

(16/10/2013) Peter Robinson claims gay blood donation ruling has ‘serious implications’ for devolution

Peter Robinson, the First Minister of Northern Ireland, has refused to condemn Health Minister Edwin Poots after he lost a legal challenge against his decision to retain the lifetime ban on blood donations from gay men.

All mainland jurisdictions relaxed restrictions on donors whose last sexual contact with another man was more than a year ago. Stormont had sought to maintain the lifetime ban citing safety concerns, but a judge ruled that they had no right to maintain the ‘irrational’ ban – a fact which led Robinson to claim that the ruling could have serious implications for devolution.

He has also ruled out disciplining Poots, who is a member of Robinson’s Democratic Unionist Party, over a breach of the ministerial code of conduct. The court held Poots in breach of his duty to bring especially contentious issues before the full Northern Irish executive. Robinson claimed that Poots had acted in good faith, and that he expected an appeal against the ruling.

In the meanwhile, Poots is fighting to keep the legal advice he received before taking his controversial decision a secret. (Read more…)

(23/10/2013) Welsh schools are worse than any in England, report finds

A few weeks ago, I brought to your attention that teachers in Wales were claiming to be ‘demoralised’ by the efforts of the Welsh government to re-impose some vestiges of the sort of school assessment system we’ve had in England for a while now. I linked to a really excellent piece by theEconomist’s Bagehot column about how much of a car crash Welsh education has been, and why that was. I heartily recommend you read it. Here is the link again.

That Bagehot article is timely twice over. First, it lambasts Clegg for hpiecis cowardly decision to pander to the received wisdom of the Welsh teaching establishment and Liberal Democrat activist base rather than what was good for children, a bad habit into which he has fallen once again. Second, a new report published this weeksets out once again how bleak the educational picture in Wales actually is.

Apparently “Wales performs less well than all regions in England, including comparably deprived regions like the North East.” Poor young children in Wales are falling far short of the achievements of children in similar socio-economic situations throughout England, and English children outperform their Welsh counterparts overall no matter what their background. (Read more…)

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Nov 30

Beannachtai ne Feile Aindréas!

‘Pearl of Tyburn’ is a practising Catholic from the United States and a frequent contributor to Open Unionism. She also runs Union Jack Chat.

Today is the feast of St. Andrew, patron saint of Scotland, so time to break out the pipes and have a Highland Fling! November also includes the feast of St. Margaret of Scotland, so the two of them get to share a post today, plus some fascinating facts from the land of the thistle.

St. Andrew’s Story

According to the New Testament, St. Andrew was the brother of St. Peter, Prince of the Apostles. Both were fishermen in the region of Galilee in Judea. Andrew was originally a disciple of St. John the Baptist, but when John pointed out Jesus of Nazareth as “the Lamb of God”, Andrew became the first follower of Our Lord. He promptly inducted his brother, Simon Peter, into the ranks of the faithful. He is also depicted as the one who lead the boy with the loaves and fishes to Jesus, providing the means for the miracle of multiplication.

Tradition states that after the death and resurrection of Christ, Andrew travelled to Asia Minor and Greece as a missionary. He was arrested by the Roman authorities and condemned to death, making him one of the earliest martyrs of the Christian Church. He was crucified on an X-shaped cross to which he was tied instead of being nailed. Hence, he became famous not so much for his role as a fisher of fish, but rather as a fisher of men.

Some time in the 4th century, St. Rule is said to have taken some bodily relics of St. Andrew from Constantinople to a Pictish settlement on the east coast of Scotland (“the ends of the earth”, as far as Rule was concerned!) Like the relics of Margaret of Scotland, Andrew’s remains in Scotland were presumably destroyed during the Protestant Reformation. However, other relics from mainland Europe which supposedly belonged to St. Andrew were sent to the Catholic Scottish community during the 19th and 20th centuries to make up for loss.

The origin of the St. Andrew’s Cross design, which graces both the Scottish Saltire flag and the Union Jack, dates back to a legend told about the Battle of Athelstanford between the Picts/Scots and the Northumbrians in 832, A.D. The Pictish leader, Angus McFergus, had a dream of the saint before the encounter, and during the battle, an X-shaped cross appeared in the sky, encouraging the Picts/Scots to drive the Northumbrians from the field. From that time on, the image of a white X on a blue background became the banner of the Scottish nation. The feast of St. Andrew is celebrated on November 30th. He is patron saint of Scotland, Russia, and Greece.

St. Margaret’s Story

St. Margaret was an Anglo-Saxon princess who was raised in the court of St. Edward the Confessor in England. When William the Conqueror invaded in 1066, she and her family intended to sail to mainland Europe and take refuge there. But a storm blew their ship off course, and they landed in Scotland instead. They were rescued by King Malcolm III, who fell madly in love with the beautiful young Margaret and subsequently married her.

Although the king could be rough and violent, Margaret’s pious and refined nature softened his attitude towards life. She had a positive effect on the Scottish court, cultivating holiness and gentility among the courtiers. She also inspired her husband to show clemency to captured Englishmen who became prisoners during various Anglo-Scottish conflicts. Her private life was replete with acts of charity and constant prayer.

Margaret founded several churches, including the Abbey of Dunfermline which was built to enshrine her greatest treasure, a relic of the true cross. She also was known to sew beautiful priest’s vestments with her own hands. A synod was held with her support, and various matters were settled including a regulation of Lenten fasting and reception of Easter Communion.

She and her husband had six sons and two daughters. Her youngest son became King David I of Scotland, and her daughter, Edith, became queen of England when she married King Henry I of England. Both were renowned for their piety and saintly conduct.

As Margaret lay on her death-bed, she learned that her husband and son, Edward, had been killed in yet another war with England. In response, she murmured: “I thank You, Almighty God, for sending me so great a sorrow to purify me from my sins.” She was buried at the high altar at Dunfermline, and her feast is celebrated on November 16th. She is a beneficial advocate for Anglo-Scottish relations.

Fascinating Scottish Facts

1. As King Robert de Bruce lay dying, he asked his closest Comrade, Lord James “Black” Douglas to cut out his heart after he had breathed his last and take it to Jerusalem for him. This was done, and Douglas set out for the Holy Land to fulfill his master’s final request. He stopped along the way to help the Spanish battle the Saracens in Granada. At first, it seemed as if the Scottish Crusaders had the upper hand, but the fortunes of the day quickly reversed and the Saracens smashed the Douglas’s lines.

Realizing the desperation of the situation, Douglas held aloft the silver casket containing the heart of Bruce that he had been wearing around his neck and shouted, “Pass first in fight, as thou wast wont to do, and Douglas will follow thee, or die.” Then he hurled it into the enemy lines. The Scottish troops were so inspired to retrieve the heart of their leader that they drove back the Saracens in a frenzied state. Afterwards, they found the body of Douglas lying on top of the casket, as if defending it like a human shield.

2. In 1652, Oliver Cromwell’s troops besieged Dunnottar Castle near Stonehaven in Scotland, knowing that Scottish crown, scepter, and sword of state were kept inside. Nevertheless, Margaret Ogilvy, the constable of the castle’s wife, was allowed certain liberties, such as receiving visits from her old school friend, Mary Grainger, the wife of a local minister at Kinneff Church. During one such visit, Mrs. Grainger and her maid came to the castle carrying two bundles of flax to give Mrs Ogilvy so she could spin away the tedious hours of siege warfare. Several days later, she and her maid were back, asking for Mrs Ogilvy to give her back any excess flax she had not already spun.

Although this may have sounded slightly odd, the guards didn’t make a fuss, especially since they were now fairly smitten by the two pretty young women. As it turned out, the scepter and sword of Scotland were actually buried in the flax, and the crown was stuffed inside the lady’s skirts. After making good her escape, Mrs. Grainger had the regalia hidden beneath the pulpit at Kinneff Church where it remained for the next eight years until the Restoration of the monarchy.

3. Ensign Malcolm MacPherson of Phoness was a skilled swordsman, former Jacobite and the oldest officer in Fraser’s Highlanders during the Battle of Quebec. When he was presented before King George and His Majesty extended his hand to him in a traditional salute, MacPherson responded by placing his personal snuff-box in one of the king’s hands and shaking the other one so roughly George yelped for quarter! The king took it all with surprising good grace and indulged in a pinch of snuff.

He was obviously ignorant of the Jacobite connotations associated with “snuff-taking” in general, and was completely unaware that accepting the offer was in essence identifying himself as a supporter of the rival royal family! “Old Phoness” just seemed contended that his cheeky gesture had given tit for tat with regards to his fellow Highlanders George had cheaply tipped when they were visited at court, as if their display of swordsmanship had been nothing more than the antics of circus clowns.

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Come visit BlessTree’s domain on Bandcamp for audio clips and price listings: http://blesstree.bandcamp.com

Also, feel free to stop by at my blog: http://www.longbowsandrosarybeads.blogspot.com

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Nov 28

Review: ‘The Reformed Union, the UK as a Federation’, by David Melding

‘O’Neill is deputy editor of Open Unionism and formerly the author of the blog ‘A Pint of Unionist Lite’.

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David Melding is a Conservative AM for South Wales Central and also the Deputy Presiding Officer of the Welsh National Assembly. Despite voting “No” in the 1997 Devolution Referendum, he has in recent years argued strongly for a federal British constitution. His most recent work entitled “The Reformed Union, the UK as a Federation” delivers a Unionist, (liberal) Conservative and federalist viewpoint which at this present juncture in our nation’s history is both thought-provoking and distinctive.

He argues that a Scottish Yes vote would obviously have consequences for the rest of the United kingdom but also the whole concept of the multi-national state elsewhere in the world:

“ If a multi-national state cannot endure in Britain, where can it prosper?”

Unionists should be showing they are actively thinking about possible future outcomes for the United Kingdom before, not after the referendum.  Polls have shown that there are a large proportion of voters in the middle-ground who want more autonomy for Scotland but not independence and the danger with the present Unionist inaction is that the middle-ground may wish to send a signal and by doing so, inadvertently Scottish secession may take place through an artificially increased Yes Vote.

Melding argues in this book from a pro-Union point of view,  federal reform is much safer than loose notions of devo-max and full fiscal autonomy for Scotland. He hopes (for the sake of the Union) that “”in a very British way, we may be ‘stumbling towards common ground that could accommodate the most constructive elements of unionist and nationalist thought”".

Melding breaks up the topic into six separate sections or discussion points: the passing of the “old” Union; Parliamentary sovereignty; the political fabric of a UK Federation; fiscal federalism and economic decentralisation; Unionism and nationalism and finally the necessity for a Constitutional Convention.

The first third of the book works best for me. There is no argument that the “old” pre-Blair Union is now finished. Devolution has not (as George Robertson hoped) killed separatism “stone dead”- Plaid Cymru, Sinn Fein and especially the SNP remain potent political forces within their own parts of the United Kingdom.

Although turnout at the ballot box for the devolved parliament and Assemblies can hardly be described as stellar, the electorate in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales seems comfortable enough with what powers their local representatives presently employ.

The Belfast Agreement of 1998 not only brought an end to the conflict (if not the serious sectarian hatreds that to a large extent underlay it)  in Northern Ireland, it also undoubtedly altered its status within the larger national picture.

So, the old Union is dead, how do the pro-Union majority ensure that there is a new, stronger one to follow?

In his second chapter, Melding maintains that parliamentary sovereignty must now be “vested in the British parliaments rather than solely in Westminster”. Both the (present day) United States and the majority of Ireland was lost, he believes, because the British parliaments of the day didn’t recognise the fact that ”Home Rule” (or federalist autonomy) need not necessarily lead to separation. The argument follows that the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish electorate now focus much more on their own parliamentary institutions than Westminster – in fact it could be argued that they don’t want “less of the British parliamentary tradition but more”, and as such it would be very dangerous for the Union’s well-being to frustrate their aspirations for more self-control. Therefore the first step would be a new Act of the Union stating that Britain is a federation with each of its “parliaments indissoluble and sovereign over their apportioned jurisdiction”.

In describing “the political fabric of a UK Federation” is where I think Melding starts to veer too far into the aspirational and idealistic. He believes that within a Uk Federation, there will be a need for pro-Union parties to “meet more the fully nationalistic aspirations” of the SNP, Plaid Cymru and (presumably) Sinn Fein whilst continuing to defend the “integrity of the Union”. Shouldn’t we wait for the electorates to request that the “respective nationalist aspirations” be satisfied first rather than relying on the demands whose ultimate aim, after all, is the destruction of the Union?

Admitedly, the author also stresses the inherent danger of a federation which constantly reduces the powers of the central government and also the symbolic unfying function of the monarchy but the underlying message that the union would be strengthened if we, as Unionists, should attempt to accommodate as far as possible the naturally centrifugal forces of nationalism within a Union structure is one which needs further explaining because the recent constitutional history of the UK does not prove that assertion.

Similarly the premise expressed in the fifth chapter that Unionism and nationalism would find a meeting point in federalism is which would require a great deal more evidence. Yes, the SNP leadership does presently state that some form of social union (including, for example, a shared monarchy, currency) should follow Scotland’s splt from the United Kingdom but how far is that belief (which anyway would seem not to be shared by a large proportion of the SNP’s activist base not to mention virtually no one within the Irish or Welsh branches of Celtic nationalism) simply a pragmatic or opportunitist attempt to maximise the Yes vote in 2014?

In his final chapter, Melling explains the necessity of a “Constitutional Convention” which would set down the parameters for the future operation of the United Kingdom. He uses examples from elsewhere in the world such as Iceland and Canada to describe the different ways in which this could be approached.

In assessing this book, I should point out at this juncture that I am not a federalist, indeed in the perfect world I would roll back Blair’s devolution experiment. Nevertheless, speaking objectively there are I think three weaknesses in “The Reformed Union, the UK as a Federation”.

As far as I am aware, there are no other federal democracies in the world which contain such an integral part which has over 80 per cent of the whole’s population, so a UK federation which tries to operate with such an imbalance would be setting a precedent. The question of England and how it, the biggest part of our nation could be accommodated within the federal system isn’t really adequately examined

Secondly, I felt, due to its recent traumatic past,  Northern Ireland’s role needed a much closer consideration than Melding afforded it here. It’s true that Northern Ireland did act, to all intents and purposes, as fully autonomous state from 1922-1972 but it would be much more difficult in the present time for its political, financial and cultural ties to suffer the inevitable loosening that a federation would bring about.

I also think that too big an assumption is made with regard to the goodwill of nationalists towards the constitutional future of the land we share. There is not really too much of a common ground with unionists outside economic matters. Why should we be negotiating the future of our nation with political parties whose raison d’etre is its destruction?

However the book is elegantly written and outside the three points I have mentioned, both methodical and cohesive. More particularly, it opens up the debate for the future of the United Kingdom and that is important because the great weakness of the Unionist political elite (for want of a better word) has been a great reluctance to get involved in the discussion at the groundfloor; simply repeating the mantra “Better together” is not good enough. David Melding has, in contrast, thought deeply about the Union and gone to the time and trouble of setting down in print his future vision.

For anyone interested in the future of the Union or even just generally in British politics, I do thoroughly recommend “ ”The Reformed Union, the UK as a Federation”.

“The Reformed Union, the UK as a Federation” can be purchased from iwa here; the Kindle version can be accessed here.

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Nov 26

Event: East Belfast Speaks Out

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‘East Belfast Speaks Out’ is a “town hall” style meeting between the people of East Belfast and their elected representatives and this year, it will be taking place on Wednesday 27 November  in Ashfield Boys’ High School from 7pm.

They are hoping to give “the opportunity for a dispirited electorate to engage in the discussion of significant issues of their own choice” and have invited the leaders of the potential opposition parties with current ministerial responsibility as panellists.

The more eagle-eyed amongst you will notice the absence of any representatives of either Sinn Féin or the DUP, who have been on all of the panels previously.

Below is the full line up:

Chair: Mark Devenport (BBC NI)

Panel:

·        David Ford MLA, Alliance

·        Mike Nesbitt MLA, UUP

·        Alex Attwood MLA, SDLP

·        Deirdre Heenan, Provost, Coleraine and Magee, University of Ulster

·        A senior member of the government at Westminster (Conservative MP)

Doors open at 7.00pm. Questions to the panel will commence at 7.30pm. Admission is free but seats are limited. More information about East Belfast Speaks Out can be found on their website.

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Nov 22

The fiscal challenges facing an independent Scotland

Calum CrichtonYesterday the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) made another highly significant contribution to the debate about Scotland’s constitutional future. In its latest report, the IFS used projections of both the UK’s and Scotland’s long term public finances, as well as projected changes in demographic structure, to investigate the long term fiscal challenges facing the UK and Scotland.
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Similar to every other study on Scottish independence the IFS had to make a variety of assumptions about what would happen if Scotland separated (the actual outcome, should it ever happen, is unobservable). The IFS consider two main scenarios: a basic case, and an optimistic scenario. In their basic model the IFS take the OBR’s forecasts for the UK as a whole and apply them to Scotland. Under this scenario the following assumptions are made:
  • Scotland takes on a population share of UK national debt (equating to around 66% of Scottish GDP).
  • Net immigration into Scotland from is 9,000 per year.
  • Labour productivity grows at a rate of 2.2% per year.
  • Nominal debt interest payments grow to 5% by 2026-2027, remaining constant thereafter.
  • North Sea oil and gas revenues decline as forecast by the OBR (declining from 0.42% of UK GDP from 2012-13 to 0.23% by 2017-18, remaining constant thereafter [assumes that the UK government would raise the same amount of money elsewhere]).
  • Nominal GDP grows at 4.2% per year.
 In their optimistic model the assumptions above are essentially the same, except with three key differences:
  • Scotland takes on a national debt equivalent to 40% of its GDP.
  • Net immigration into Scotland is 26,000 per year.
  • North Sea oil and gas revenues evolve as per the SNP’s most optimistic scenario, where total North Sea receipts equate £57.1 billion between 2012-13 to 2017-18.
Helpfully the IFS chart these scenarios on the same graph to allow for easy comparison. Even under their most optimistic scenario, the IFS say Scotland’s fiscal deficit would be twice as large as the UK’s as a proportion of GDP from 2062-63, or three times as large under the basic model:
In terms of the debt-to-GDP ratio, the IFS project that the figure for Scotland would be north of 100% of GDP by 2062-63, or almost 250% of GDP under more favourable assumptions.
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Clearly a deficit and national debt of this level is unsustainable, so the IFS then quantify the size of the fiscal consolidation that would be needed to get Scotland’s debt-to-GDP down to 40% by 2062-63, assuming implementation in 2021-22. Under their basic model the IFS put this figure at 4.1% for Scotland (£6 billion in today’s terms), compared to 0.8% for the UK. Their more optimistic model quantifies the required austerity at 1.9% and 0.8%, respectively.
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In percentage terms that 1.9% figure does not seem like an awful lot. But the IFS say that this masks the scale of the challenge Scotland would face. They note (p.g. 40):
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Closing a fiscal gap of 1.9% of national income would require a significant fiscal tightening, let alone closing a gap of 4.1% or 6.3% of national income. Adam, Johnson and Roantree (2013) discuss in more detail the revenue yield of possible tax rises in Scotland. As an example, increasing the current main rate of VAT by 1 percentage point would increase tax revenues in 2014–15 by around £430 million (equivalent to 0.3% of national income), while an increase in the current basic rate of income tax by 1 percentage point would increase tax revenues by £365 million (or 0.2% of national income). Closing the entire fiscal gap through increasing tax revenues would, therefore, require significant increases in a number of tax rates. 

In terms of spending, total non-interest spending in Scotland is projected to be 34.0% in 2021–22, and therefore reducing spending by 1.9% of national income would require a 6% reduction in this spending (while cuts of 4.1% or 6.3% of national income would require a cut of 12% or 19%).If all of this spending reduction were to come from public services (as opposed to spending on pensions and social benefits), then public service spending would need to be cut by 8% (or 17% or 27%) since public service spending is only projected to amount to 23.5% of national income in 2021–22.

Now it should be noted that nothing in today’s IFS report says independent is not a viable option for Scotland. But is it the best one? The SNP would argue it is. They would argue that the only reason Scotland is facing economic challenges is because of poor decisions taken at the UK level. Vote for independence and these challenges would largely disappear.
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But regular readers will note that the two basic underlying reasons for Scotland’s deteriorating fiscal position over the long term is something I’ve commented on before: (1) the higher volatility on the tax side due to a greater reliance on oil revenues; and (2) the greater pressures on the expenditure side due to an ageing population. All else equal, it means that the gap between what Scotland receives in tax revenues and what it spends on public spending is larger.
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And it is these two factors that would make the financial challenges and hence the required austerity in an independent Scotland “significantly greater” than for the UK as a whole, according to the IFS Deputy Director Carl Emmerson in an interview with the BBC:
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So the main thing that Scots need to ask themselves before they vote is whether they think this is a road worth going down. Will they be better of under independence? Would they be able to maximise the potential of their resources? Or is it better to pool and share resources across the UK to meet the costs of an ageing population and iron out tax volatility? Is it better to have public spending decisions taken by speculators on commodities markets, or is it more preferable to have them taken at home by the UK and Scottish governments? And is it better for Scotland to break up the fiscal integration it currently shares with the UK, or is it more advantageous to be a key part of a broader and more dynamic economy where the four nations of the United Kingdom can work together for the common good?
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In that respect, yesterday’s IFS report has certainly given Scots a lot to think about.

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