Friday, 28 September 2012

Sinn Fein are their own worst enemy on Unification.

Something that has bugged me for a long time is the odd way in which Sinn Fein are regarded as a successful political party in Northern Ireland (or the North, for any readers of that persuasion). Like many things in life, it just seems to be an accepted and unquestioned fact that Sinn Fein are a brilliant political machine and other parties have much to learn from them. Well, I don't accept it and I am going to question it.

It could be argued that the objective of any political party is to be electorally successful and to set the agenda/implement policy according to their proscribed ideology, with most people agreeing that the two things go hand in hand - you can't very well set the agenda and implement policy if you are not electorally successful - and as such it is one combined objective.

What often happens though is that parties, politicians and voters alike believe that by achieving the former, the latter will follow. Thus, the combined objective of winning and then implementing policy becomes two very separate objectives and winning becomes primary above all else. What this means is that where there is a conflict of policy, parties - often unconsciously - shape their decisions based on what is best for the primary objective and so ideology is compromised.

There is no doubt that in terms of organisation and activism, Sinn Fein lead the way in Northern Ireland. They are professional, slick and entirely focused on the result which is more often than not a favourable one. Their structure and the way they operate is definitely something other parties can learn from. But that doesn't mean they are successful as a political party, it just means they know how to organise and know how to secure their vote.

Sinn Fein have to be measured - like any other party - against how successful they are in convincing the public (or more specifically: the electorate) that their vision is the right vision. On that measurement, it is clear that Sinn Fein have failed. They have only themselves to blame.

Sinn Fein are supposedly a party of Irish Nationalism. A party whose main and primary objective is the unification of the island of Ireland as a nation of equals. If this is indeed what Sinn Fein want above all else then they seriously need to re-think their strategy and start asking themselves some very difficult questions:

  • What's more important: Irish Unity or remembering the IRA?
  • What's more important: Irish Unity or opposition to The Queen & the UK?
  • What's more important: Irish Unity or holding West Belfast?
  • What's more important: Irish Unity or republican prisoners being part of the process?

From everything they do, Sinn Fein make it clear that Irish Unity is only appealing with certain caveats: Unionists not only have to stop being unionists, they have to accept Sinn Fein's vision of how things should be. They have to accept former terrorists as their leaders; they have to reject their culture & their history; they have to reject their ideology (no room for right wing minded people in Sinn Fein's Ireland).

If I was a Sinn Fein strategist, my starting point would be "what do we do to convince Unionists to abandon their unionism". It's the only way that the goal of unification can be achieved and as such, all other considerations - prisoners, the IRA, anti-monarchism - are where you make the compromises. Sinn Fein don't do that. They put people like Mary McCardle into senior positions and they promote ex terrorists through their political ranks so the Assembly is led by one of the most notorious ex terrorists.

Sinn Fein can justify these kinds of decisions - and, if I'm honest, I tend to agree with much of their justification - but what they don't do is consider the damage it does to their supposedly primary objective. Why, when appointing McCardle did no one in their strategy team say "hold on, how does this make us look to Unionists?" and put a stop on the appointment?

I am all too aware of the importance of remembering history and considering what happened in context but that is a luxury Sinn Fein can not afford. If Irish unity is ever going to happen, Sinn Fein need to accept that sacrifices will have to be made - people's noses will have to be put out of joint and it's likely that people who do the right thing will suffer personally (just ask David Trimble & the UUP). The problem is that Sinn Fein want those sacrifices to be made by Unionists, not them.

I've little doubt that members and activists within Sinn Fein will disagree with the entirety of this post but before they do they should ask themselves these questions:

  1. Do you need Unionists to achieve your goal of Irish Unity?
  2. Do Unionists endorse Sinn Fein?

That's the simplest measure I can think of to gauge Sinn Fein's success as a political party and on that measure, they have failed quite spectacularly.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Belfast's Bus Balls Up.

Being a member of the Green Party you may have just assumed that I'd love to carpet every city with bus lanes and, to an extent, you'd be right. However, bus lanes aren't a congestion solution, they aren't a solution to climate change and they aren't a solution to public transport under funding. What they are is a small part of a whole solution and unless you employ all parts of that whole solution in tandem or in sequence, then you will fail to achieve the objective, whatever it may be.

From what I understand, the objective behind the introduction of the new bus lanes in Belfast was to reduce city centre congestion and encourage public transport use. It was bound to fail from the start because the logic was so incredibly flawed. If it's to reduce congestion, then DRD must recognise that congestion existed. If it existed then it stands to reason that people still preferred congested traffic to using public transportation. The next logical question for most people would be - 'how can I improve public transport to make it more attractive?'

Not the logical question for DRD though. Instead, they settled on 'How can we force people to use the public transport system they have so emphatically rejected?' Surprise, surprise, they preferred the stick to the carrot. And surprise, surprise, the people did not like the stick one little bit.

I've bleated on and on (to anyone that will listen) about public transport before, but the issue is still there so I'll bleat on and on some more: we need ridiculously unprecedented levels of investment in public transport before it's a viable alternative to driving. The fact remains that, even with the bus lanes making congestion worse in Belfast, it's still more attractive to drive and in some cases, still remains the only option.

It's impossible to measure the value of being able to have your own, secure, private method of transport available whenever you like. To compete against that you have to make all of the objective variables so, so much more attractive. Only when you get the combination of fare price, accessibility, frequency of service etc right can you mitigate that immeasurable appeal of driving.

Still, it's only been a couple of weeks so maybe things will settle down and maybe people will come to like the DRD's big stick and will indeed start using the bus & train to get to Belfast (which would be great) and I'll be proved monumentally wrong. I hope so. I really do.

What are the real issues in Northern Ireland politics?

This post is a response to a post from another blogger, Matt Johnston, that he posted on his blog - - on Sept 11. (apologies for the delay in getting to this). The post suggests that, when examining a party's manifesto, those looking for a progressive party to align with or vote for, should apply a "political purity test" and gives a few examples of what these tests should entail. Some of the suggestions are Matt's own, some he has crowd sourced.

I'm going to answer these in terms of my party - The Green Party in Northern Ireland - but please bear in mind, I am not speaking on behalf of my party, these are just my own personal responses that reflect my choice of party.

(my answers in blue)

Do they support raising the bar for education in schools (especially with regards to computing education)? I know this is a personal desire but I believe it is an important one. And, Estonia is leading the way here – programming will be applied to everyone in school from age 6.
Good luck finding a party that says they don’t support raising the bar for education in schools! We all say it, what you have to consider is which party agrees with your own ideas on how to raise the bar. At our AGM next month, we’re focusing on Education but you can find what we promised in our last manifesto here. Our focus is on increasing standards in early years provision – in particular, 100% preschool provision, but we also think it’s time we addressed the lack of programming skills that children leave school with.
What is their stance on equal marriage? It doesn’t really affect me (being a white male heterosexual brimming with privilege) but I would have to question the motives of any political party who refuse marriage equality for all. Why do you want to stop people from getting married except under your definitions?
During the last Assembly term, GPNI leader & North Down MLA, Steven Agnew submitted a motion to the business committee that called on the Executive to introduce equality legislation that would allow same sex couples to marry. Agnew could not get support from any other party and the motion was not selected for debate. The motion has now been resubmitted and Sinn Fein have added their support. The motion will be debated October 1st.
Do they understand the economic priorities for Northern Ireland? Because we have a hundred lobby groups who all want their little slice of the pie to be the economic priority. And, as anyone with half a brain knows, you can only have a short list of priorities before all you are offering is lip service to any of them.
Again, like any other party, we believe we do. We want an economy focused not just on growth for the sake of it, but on providing quality of life for all its citizens in a genuinely sustainable fashion. Our policies look to reduce consumption and promote major shift changes in attitudes. We consider governments have a responsibility to consider the long term effects of policy and not just focus on delivering an instant hit. Crucially, our economic policy is completely linked with our policies on social justice – we don’t think you can ever achieve economic stability without achieving social justice.
Do they support total transparency on finances? This means the supplier relationships local authorities and also donations to political parties. Because if they want to hide this information then they have to be suspect for their motives. Are their supporters some kind of nutter? Are they buying policy?
The Green Party publishes it’s donations on line and was the first party in Northern Ireland to do so. We believe political funding should be completely transparent and do not accept the excuse that NI is a special case because of security issues.
What is their policy on parades and illegal organisations? If you support flying flags of illegal organisations (involved in murder) then you’re part of the problem. If you support parades going through anywhere but city centres, then you’re part of the problem. Keep parades the hell away from where people live.
Our policy is that we support the provisions laid out in the Good Friday Agreement for dealing with these issues. Where there is strong opposition to parades, we encourage dialogue first and foremost but, if that fails, then it is ultimately down to the parades commission to make a determination and that should be respected by all.
What’s your policy on integration in schools? If it’s any less than 100%, then you’re just propagating the issues we’ve been suffering with for my entire lifetime. Religious instruction in state-funded schools is not appropriate. Religion is a personal experience. Keep it in your family and your congregation.
This is something we will be formally deciding on next month but I fully expect a reinforcement of our secular position.
Are they prepared to fight for local services that are necessary? And not just those that win votes.
This is open to interpretation but I will say this: we definitely don’t do things to win votes! Where we have been against the populist grain is in two areas – water charges and the reform of public administration (RPA). We think it necessary to start charging for domestic water use, but only after a daily allowance limit has been reached. As for RPA, we don’t agree that it’s right to scrap the 26 councils and replace them with 11 super councils. We believe democracy works best when decisions are taken at the lowest effective levels. There are ways to reduce admin costs without scrapping local democracy.
Are they at all realistic and prepared for the removal of the block grant in 2016? Is their response just “Fight the Cuts” or are they preparing their plan for how to keep the country ticking (rather than just turning it into a ticking time-bomb?
Not sure how best to answer this question. There’s no simple right or wrong answer, everyone has a theory or an ideology they subscribe to. Ours – that of sustainability – is just one approach. The over reliance on the block grant is a problem for sure, but the bigger problem is how the block grant is distributed. Our focus should be on that. We’re not going to be financially cut adrift in 2016.
Are they prepared to apply the law to all without regard for historical or cultural sensitivity? This means no by-ball for their mates in the lodge (Orange or Hibernian). This means no unofficial vigilantes. This means more than simple “condemnation” of the violence.
Not entirely, No: You can apply the law to all AND have regard for historical or cultural sensitivity. What is important is that you consider the historical and cultural context before passing any laws that are likely to unfairly or unnecessarily damage that sensitivity.
Are they prepared to help make Northern Ireland a great place to live? This means not pandering to one side or another and it probably means doing things that might be unpopular.
We are committed to raising the living standard across Northern Ireland and we feel that this is not best achieved by just continuing down the same path that’s been trodden before. We shouldn’t be looking at the country 2 or 3 places above us in the league of great places to live – we should be looking at the top and saying “what do we need to do top beat them”? Concurrent to that is a need to define what makes anywhere a great place to live. It’s not simply about having a high average income or having world class connectivity (though we certainly should) but about achieving contentment for the majority.
Do they support the ridiculous opening hours restrictions placed on shops on Sundays? Not to mention the restrictions on pubs and nightclubs. We’re not a “party region” - we’re barely a tourist friendly region. Give tourists something to do on a Sunday morning other than listen to dreary bells.
I’ll be honest and say that this isn’t something I’ve heard discussed formally within the party – at least not in any conversations I’ve been privy too, but it’s definitely something I see the party supporting. Personally, I think it would be a positive thing, but I’m not entirely convinced it’s the silver bullet that many make it out to be.
Do they support the teaching of Creationism in schools? This is a hot topic considering that government is trying to increase interest in STEM subjects and including a mythology alongside science is counterproductive. Creationism is a great story for goatherds two millennia ago. Let’s keep it for Sundays and get it out of our schools.
Schools should teach children about religion, including religious theories on creation, but this should not be instruction. It should be presented as it is – a theory and children should be taught to measure that theory in the same way that they measure any theory. If we do that, they’ll come to their own conclusions and that, after all, is what we want from education.
As they all represent minorities, what about referendums? Can the people actually have a say in things that matter? Items such as the sovereignty of Ulster, unification with Ireland, abortion.
It’s not a simple yes or no answer. Of course referendums are great in theory – direct democracy in action – but in practice they are very costly and can completely dominate legislative timetables. That’s the whole point of representative democracy. However, there are some issues that clearly should be put to a simple public vote and the unification of Ireland is one of them – indeed it can only happen through a referendum. As for other issues, the public have to demonstrate that there is significant depth of feeling on a specific issue – abortion, unfortunately, lacks this. It just isn’t a big issue for voters.
Public transport has to be the future, so where is the investment? I’ve waxed about Free Public Transport as a social and economic leveller before. Climate change isn’t going away. (Thanks to Darryl in comments)
Matt and I are more or less in sync on this and I’ll be working within the party to promote free public transport, but the party is already out ahead of other parties when it comes to public transport – we proposed a moratorium on road construction - preferring that money to be invested instead in public transport – we proposed investment in smaller vehicles in rural areas to increase frequency of services, we have a policy of providing safe cycle routes to all schools. We don’t need change in public transport: we need revolution.
What about a strong stance on improving the lots of sex workers? These people exist and they’ll never go away. So think hard about making their voices heard and working for their safety rather than criminalising the activity and forcing the issue underground. That just makes a bad situation worse. (Thanks to Nine in comments)
There’s a very simplistic attitude that’s prevalent in politics on this issue which tends to lump all sex workers into one category and see them all as victims in a dirty trade. Whilst it is imperative that the state does all it can to help those who want no part of that particular life, it also has a responsibility to ensure those that do are safe, recognised and have choices available to them. But the state also needs to be very tough on those who force others into prostitution (or any other sexual employment) and those who create the demand. The issue is best looked at in conjunction with societies attitude to sex in general.