Selling off Scotland

'I'm amazed that an SNP government would be so intent on turning our country into some kind of heath

I'm at home. This doesn't happen. I'm never at home. I never have time to look in all my cupboards and dust. (As it turns out, there's quite a lot stored in my dust.) I've been in my own flat for almost two weeks. Good God, this is unheard of and had I not been strapped into my big black typing chair and imaginary places for almost all of this - I did have an outing to Perth for a reading - I would probably be deep into cabin fever by now.

Then again, I may have just spent the small and larger hours of every day battering out allworkandnoplaymakesJackadullboy over and over. I'm not really in a position to judge. I have an impossible amount of work to do and in order to finish the short stories, the newspaper bits, the emails, the drama fragments and treatments and films to which I have committed myself (quite possibly to no avail) I have to behave impossibly - which is to say, by not sleeping, typing, eating toast, typing, doing Tai Chi and (I didn't know people genuinely did this) pulling my hair out and typing. My chair is surrounded by a ring of fallen hair, scribbled-over manuscripts and discarded mugs. And, strangely, I'm having the time of my life. It's exhilarating: all this pacing and typing and puzzling and skin-of-the-teeth deadlines and shouting at my walls - and when I meet real live people in the streets on the way to buy more toasting bread I TEND TO SPEAK VERY LOUDLY AND FAST BECAUSE OF THE CAFFEINE. I may have a stroke quite soon.

And, of course, I'm entirely pleased by the election results in the US. For the first time in three presidential races, a majority of the American states has voted for a Democrat and actually ended up getting one. Who knows by what margin he really won, given the shameless voter purges and rigged ballot machines?

The senate race has also been dirty and dodgy: for example - oops - 50,000 suspected Democrat voters have been reported as blocked from voting in Georgia. Ain't democracy a grand thing? But I'm still cheery - despite the possibilities of Republican philibusters to come - any man who mentions giving a puppy to children in his presidential acceptance speech is okay by me. And if I see that puppy crapping on the Whitehouse lawn I will believe those campaign promises and good feelings for at least a month or two. And I will be able to ignore the never-ending references to the Kennedy brothers whenever Obama appears. We all know these are just mediaspeak for "We think you're going to be shoot in the head soon. Sorry. And sorry for unsubtly suggesting this so very, very often. But it will be a great story. For us. Not so good for you, or your kids, or your wife, or that puppy. Is the puppy cute ? Will it be in the funeral cortege?"

Oddly a UK pal of mine wrote me an email on Wednesday morning that mentioned being "exhausted by hope" after watching Obama's victory. How appalling is it that we should find hope exhausting - even when it's second-hand?

Less of a big huzzah when I found out that my local Scottish politicians have just decided to bend over and let Donald Trump do whatever he wants with a huge and rather lovely chunk of Aberdeenshire.

I'm amazed that an SNP government would be so intent on turning our country into some kind of heathery play park for the super rich and plausible. Not that Trump is that plausible - if we wanted to get into bed with a millionaire couldn't we have picked one the other millionaires didn't laugh at? - one whose millions were a little more, shall we say, convincing and whose current business schemes were not rumoured to be quite so dependent on future business schemes in what looks horribly like an over-leveraged and apocalyptic chain of fiscal dominos. And what have we just learned about those, boys and girls ? Nothing apparently. So, well done, Mr. Salmond. Next time I see your noble visage and melting brown eyes I shall hear the delicious and perfectly sane Mel Gibson's voice yelling,"They will never take our freedom!" Yeah, right. We'll just sell it them for pocket change and promises and a couple of photo ops. Can I see that puppy now, please? - I'm getting depressed.

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"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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