Archive for the Politics Category

Signs of the Times

Posted in Maynooth, Politics with tags , , , , , on January 21, 2020 by telescoper

I’ve spent most of today on a secret mission so I’ve just going to do a brief post before I go home.

Since there’s a General Election campaign going on in Ireland, I thought I’d share the above picture I took on the Kilcock Road. Posters like this are a bit of a tradition at election time in Ireland. I’ve never seen anything like them in England or Wales. I’m told posters like this started going up in Dublin the day the election was announced, but it took a day or two for them to appear in Maynooth. There has been talk of banning this sort of display on environmental grounds, but they’re still here.

Other news on the election  is that two opinion polls have been published that must make uncomfortable reading for the incumbent Taioseach Leo Varadkar and his Fine Gael party. The results with breakdown of first-preference votes for Fine Gael (FG), Fianna Fáil (FF) and Sinn Féin (SF) are:

  • Sunday Times/Behaviour & Attitude: FF 32%; FG 20%; SF 19%
  • Irish Times/IPSOS-MRBI: FF 25%; FG 21%; SF 21%

Both are based on quite small samples (923 and 1200 respectively) and consequently have quite large margins of error (3.3% and 2.8% respectively) so one shouldn’t get too excited by the fact that they differ by quite a bit. Moreover the transferable vote system adopted in Irish elections makes it difficult to translate the percentage of first-preference votes into seats in the Dáil because that depends a lot on transfers of lower-ranked preferences. I would however make the inference that it’s very unlikely that any party will get an overall majority on February 8th.

Another thing I’d say is that regardless of one’s voting preferences it seems to me quite wrong for the state broadcaster to pretend that this is a two-horse race and exclude Sinn Féin’s leader Mary Lou McDonald from its planned election debate. The Fine Gael leader seems very opposed to SF being represented in this debate and in my opinion it would serve him right if his party ended up in third place.

Oh, and I should point out that as a consequence of the referendum held in 2018, as of January 2020 blasphemy is no longer a criminal offence in Ireland.


Election Time in Ireland!

Posted in Maynooth, Politics with tags , , , , on January 15, 2020 by telescoper

Yesterday, in response to a request from the Taioseach Leo Varadkar, the Uachtarán na hÉireann Michael D. Higgins dissolved the 32nd Dáil Éireann. There will be a General Election on 8th February (unusually, on a Saturday) to determine the composition of the 33rd Dáil. So we now have three and a half weeks of electioneering. Sigh.

The previous administration, headed by Mr Varadkar, was a minority Government led by his Fine Gael party supported in a `confidence-and-supply’ arrangement by Fianna Fáil. These two parties have more-or-less alternated in running Ireland since Independence, and both could be characterized as centre-right, Neoliberal parties. Fine Gael MEPs sit with the EPP group in the European Parliament while Fianna Fáil’s sit with RE (formerly ALDE). In terms of UK politics FG is closer to the Conservative Party (though not as far to the right) and FF to the Liberal Democrats. There’s therefore even less of a gap between FG and FF than their closest UK equivalents. Incidentally Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have their roots in the chaos of the Irish civil war in response to the Anglo-Irish Treaty: FG was pro-Treaty and FF anti-Treaty.

The real question to be answered in this election is whether anything might happen to break the right-wing hegemony that has held sway for so long in the Republic. I would to believe so but, frankly, I doubt it. Despite the Varadkar administration’s abject failures on housing and health (led by two spectacularly useless Ministers), and the fact that these two issues are likely to prove extremely important during the campaigns, I feel the innate conservatism of the Irish electorate will led yet again to another FG/FF combination. One of the worries that comes with that is a continuation of the present chronic underfunding of Irish universities.

I am not sure at this point who I’ll be voting for – I don’t yet know who’s standing in my constituency of Kildare North – but it won’t certainly be either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael. The strongest left-wing party in Ireland is Sinn Féin and I like many of their progressive policies. My main reservation about voting for them is that I’m not a nationalist. Although I would love to see a United Ireland, I consider myself to be an internationalist and find some of the rhetoric of Irish nationalism very uncomfortable. Nevertheless, I believe it would be good for Ireland to have a strong representation from Sinn Féin in the 33rd Dáil Éireann. Other possible leftish parties include the Green Party, Labour and the Social Democrats.

Incidentally, the voting system for General Elections in Ireland is basically the same as that for the European Parliamentary Elections last year, but with a larger number of constituencies (40 instead of 3). Between them these constituencies elect 159 Teachtaí Dála (TDs) (the equivalent of MPs), an average of about 4 per constituency. There are actually 160 seats, but the Speaker is re-elected automatically. The Single Transferable Vote system is used, meaning that voters have a single ballot paper on which they rank the candidates in order of preference. The candidate with the lowest number of first-preference votes is eliminated and their second preference votes redistributed. Candidates are thus progressively eliminated until the requisite number of TDs is selected.

My constituency is Kildare North which elected 1 Social democrat, 1 Fine Gael and 2 Fianna Fáil TDs last time. This is a primarily rural constituency which is, on the whole, rather affluent, as is reflected in the above result.

A System of Dishonour

Posted in Politics with tags , , , on December 28, 2019 by telescoper

In the news this morning was the release of the New Year’s Honours List for 2020. The awards that made the headlines were various sports persons, musicians and other celebrities, as well as the odd ghastly politician.

The honours system must appear extremely curious to people from outside the United Kingdom. It certainly seems so to me. On the one hand, I am glad that the government has a mechanism for recognising the exceptional contributions made to society by certain individuals. Musicians, writers, sportsmen and sportswomen, entertainers and the like generally receive handsome financial rewards, of course, but that’s no reason to begrudge a medal or two in recognition of the special place they occupy in our cultural life. It’s good to see scientists recognized too, although they tend not to get noticed so much by the press. I noticed for example, Ed Hawkins, who got his PhD at in Astronomy at Nottingham when I was there and is now Professor of Climate Science at the University of Reading, received an MBE.

On the other hand, there are several things about the hinours system that make me extremely uncomfortable. One is that the list of recipients of certain categories of award is overwhelmingly dominated by career civil servants, for whom an “honour” goes automatically with a given rank. If an honour is considered an entitlement in this way then it is no honour at all, and in fact devalues those awards that are given on merit to people outside the Civil Service. Civil servants get paid for doing their job, so they should have no more expectation of an additional reward than anyone else.

Honours have relatively little monetary value on their own, of course so this is not question of financial corruption. An honour does, however, confer status and prestige on the recipient so what we have is a much more subtle form of perversion.

Worse still is the dishing out of gongs to political cronies, washed-up ministers, and various sorts of government hangers-on. An example of the latter is the knighthood awarded to Iain Duncan Smith, a thoroughly loathsome person responsible for introducing the cruel system of Universal Credit designed to make the UK sick and poor even sicker and poorer and which has undoubtedly led to real hardship and even death.

Although the honours system has opened up a little bit over the last decade or so, to me it remains a sinister institution that attempts to legitimise the self-serving nature of its patronage by throwing the odd bone to individuals outside the establishment. I don’t intend any disrespect to the individuals who have earned their knighthoods, MBEs, OBEs, CBEs or whatnot. I just think they’re being rewarded with tainted currency.

And that’s even before you take into account the award of a knighthood to people like Iain Duncan Smith. Well, I mean. Does anyone really think it’s an honour to be in the same club as him? I find it deeply offensive that he could have been considered an appropriate person to be on the list.

There goes my knighthood.

2019: A Summary of the Year

Posted in Politics on December 20, 2019 by telescoper

Change in Northern Ireland

Posted in History, Politics with tags , , on December 17, 2019 by telescoper

One of the potentially most significant outcomes of the 2019 General Election, but one barely mentioned in the English media, was what happened in Northern Ireland. For the first time ever, a majority of the MPs elected in the six counties were nationalist. The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) gained two seats to add to the seven of Sinn Féin (including a significant gain in Belfast North) while the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) lost two to finish with eight. The remaining seat went to the Alliance, originally a moderate unionist party but now basically a liberal centrist (and anti-Brexit) party.

Here’s how the electoral map of Northern Ireland changed:

Sinn Féin seats are dark green, DUP orange, SDLP light green and Alliance yellow.

In terms of the popular vote, the DUP+UUP got 42.3% whereas SDLP+ Sinn Féin got 37.7. Both SF and DUP lost vote share compared to 2017 (by 6.7% and 5.4% respectively) at the expense of the Alliance (up 8.8%) and SDLP (up 3.1%).

Incremental differences, perhaps, but significant nonetheless – especially as Brexit hasn’t yet happened. After Brexit there will be a border in the Irish Sea, which will bring the end of partition one step closer. The probability of seeing a United Ireland in my lifetime has definitely increased.

It was no surprise to see the hashtag `#UnityPlan’ trending on Twitter immediately after the election. Irish unification will only happen if there is a public vote and a majority on both sides of the border agree. For that vote to be fair it is vital that there is a definite plan on how to proceed in the event that the vote is in favour, so the public know what they are voting for. The Irish should not make the mistake that Britain did over Brexit.

For many unionists religion was the primary reason for wanting to remain in the United Kingdom at the time of partition in 1921: Protestants felt that their identity would be threatened if they were made to join the Catholic South. Maybe they were right to feel nervous, as the original constitution of the Irish Free State enshrined “the special position of the Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church”.  But the section including that phrase was deltd from the Constitution way back in 1973 and the Roman Church has far less influence in the Republic than it did. Ireland is now an open and progressive country, so I hope those fears have receded.

Just to confuse matters even further I should mention that my Grandfather, the one born in Belfast, to whom I owe my Irish citizenship,  was a protestant republican…

Those in the North who wish to keep their British passports should be able to do so in a United Ireland, just as those of us who were born in Britain but now live in Ireland can keep ours. I’ll be keeping mine, at least until it expires…

P.S. It is worth mentioning (primarily for British friends) that there are three counties in Ireland that belong to the province of Ulster but are not part of Northern Ireland as it was formed after partition: these are Monaghan, Cavan and Donegal. The northernmost point of Donegal, Malin Head, is actually the northernmost point on the island of Ireland.

There are bad times just around the corner – Noel Coward

Posted in Music, Politics with tags , on December 16, 2019 by telescoper

Those `Former Mining Communities’

Posted in Biographical, History, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on December 15, 2019 by telescoper

I’ve generally avoided the UK media over the last few days but couldn’t resist commenting on a phrase that has appeared again in the context of constituencies in the North and Midlands of England that voted in Tory Members of Parliament in the 2019 General Election.

The first of these to declare a result was Blyth Valley, in Northumberland, a place that I know reasonably well as I grew up in the North-East. This constituency was created in 1955 and had a Labour MP continuously from then until December 12th 2019.

(Incidentally, the winning candidate in Blyth Valley, Ian Levy, presented himself as an NHS nurse, which he has never been. I doubt anyone cares, though. Bare-faced lying seems to be completely acceptable these days.)

(Left) Bates Colliery in Blyth in 1986 when it closed; (Right) the scene in 2014. Picture Credit Newcastle Evening Chronicle.

I should state for the record that I was born in Walker, to the East of Newcastle upon Tyne, but grew up in Benwell, to the West. When I was a child all the pits in the immediate vicinity, such as the Montague Main Colliery in Denton Burn, had already closed because the inland coal seams had been exhausted. Those remaining open were deep mines in which the coal faces were out under the North Sea.

Anyway, Blyth Valley was described in the media after the election result as a `Former Mining Community’. The town of Blyth is a port and was at one time a major centre for shipbuilding as well as coal mining, but the coal industry –especially Bates colliery – was indeed an extremely important factor in the town’s economy.

But Bates Colliery closed in 1986. A bit further inland the larger, and probably more famous, Ashington Colliery closed in 1988. The last mine in the North West Durham coalfield closed in 1994. Further South, Bolsover Colliery (in the Derbyshire constituency by Dennis Skinner for 49 years, until December 12th 2019) closed in 1993. And so on. All these places, and many others. decided to return Conservative MPs in 2019.

None of these places has had a working coal pit for 25 years or more, yet they are still consistently described in the media as `former mining communities’. I find that very telling, when there hasn’t been any mining there for a generation.

Coal mining forged the identity of these places. Almost everything revolved around the pits. Many of the houses were specifically by colliery owners to house the miners and their families. In the North-East, miners even had their own dialect, Pitmatic (distinct from Geordie). It wasn’t by any means an easy life being a miner but to be a miner at least meant having a distinct and proud identity,

The foundations of these communities were taken away during the Thatcher years. It’s not just about the local economic devastation, though that was bad enough, it was that the entire raison d’être disappeared. Over the subsequent decades little effort has been made by any Government of any complexion to stimulate the towns and villages so they remain `former mining communities’. Their past is well-defined, their future not.

After a decade of particularly severe austerity it’s hardly surprising that people in such areas expressed their anger at a political system that has failed them so badly, first in the 2016 referendum and then in this year’s General Election.

What’s less comprehensible (at least to me) is why anyone would think that their situation is likely to improve under the same Tories that have ignored them so consistently for so long. All I can guess is that it’s something to do with finding a sense of identity in a mining community that’s no longer a mining community. I suppose that, for some, this entails adopting increasingly nationalistic attitudes, such as were encouraged by the Conservative Party’s consistently xenophobic and anti-immigrant rhetoric.

For myself I don’t see what identity has to do with nationality at all. We can identify ourselves in all kinds of ways without having to rely on the geographical accident of our birthplace.

I have no idea what the next five years will bring for places like Blyth Valley and Bolsover. But the wider question is whether by the time of the next General Election we will will be talking about the former United Kingdom.