I've changed my mind. Let the EDL march

I would like to extend an olive branch to those defenders of English nationalism.

Pragmatism. Magnanimity. A willingness to show compassion and understanding to friend and foe alike.

I possess none of these qualities. The world is black and white. I am right, you are wrong. If you are my opponent I must crush, not merely beat you.

That is how I have always conducted my politics. It has not been wholly successful. But it has got me as far as this web site, so I must have done something right.

None of us, though, have a monopoly on wisdom. Nor are our life choices set in stone. Occasionally one should listen to the views of others. Turn over a new leaf. Reach out.

You may have read in other places my criticism of the English Defence League [EDL]. I have used harsh, even coarse language against them. Most recently I have insisted their boots should not set foot on the streets of Tower Hamlets, and been critical of those who have adopted a different stance.

Here, today, I would like to make amends. I would like to extend an olive branch to those defenders of English nationalism, and those others who, on a point of principle, have spoken out for their right to free assembly and protest.

Let us compromise. Why don't we put aside our differences, and find a middle path.

Here is my offering. The EDL should be allowed to march. But with pre-conditions. One or two safeguards that will enable those of us who have been sceptical of their methods and motives to be reassured of their good faith.

My first offer is this. The EDL can demonstrate. But with a commitment that for the 24 hours proceeding and following their protest, none of those participating consumes alcohol. Not a drop. None of those strange alcopop type drinks favoured by EDL leader Tommy Robinson. Not even a small dry sherry. Abstinence is the price they should pay to demonstrate their passion for freedom of expression and the rule of law. Oh, and they should agree to be breath tested in advance of the march. Not that I don't trust the boys you understand. But as I said, it's a sign of good faith.

If this seems too draconian, I have a second offer. Again, they can march. But it must be in fancy dress. A certain percentage of the EDL's followers must embark on their demo wearing nun's habits. A further percentage in those weird Emu like costumes Bernie Clifton wears to run the London marathon. And so on. Oh, and there's one final control order. Tommy Robinson himself must wear a tutu. Not just a tutu, obviously. That would make him look ridiculous. And slightly obscene. He can still wear his jeans and black puffer, or his EDL hoodie. Actually, wer'e banning hoodies these days aren't we, so that's probably out.

And there you have it. The EDL nuns and emus can march proudly through streets of East London, and the rest of us can take our sandwiches and watch. The kids would love it.

Or if that doesn't work, perhaps because they can't get enough habits and tutus in such a short space of time, I have a third suggestion.

Much has been made of the fact that other marches have been proscribed by the Home Secretary. That is indeed troubling. So I propose this.

Instead of banning the marches, we merge them. The EDL, Unite Against Fascism [UAF], and East End gay pride should march together. As one. Divided by ideology, yes. But united in their commitment to free political expression.

Of course, and you knew this was coming didn't you, there's one further catch. They must hold hands. Not in one long line of solidarity. That would be impractical; Brick Lane is very narrow. But two by two.

I'd love it if we could manage boy-girl, boy-girl, but I'm not sure the EDL have enough female members. So it would have to be by group. EDL member/gay pride member, UAF supporter/EDL member, etc.

To add another nice twist, they should intersperse their chants. Though I find the regular protest chats of all three groups a bit dull. So we should spice it up a bit. The UAF should sing some rousing patriotic anthems. Land of Hope and Glory. Jerusalem of course. The odd rendition of "Five one, even Heskey scored". Meanwhile, the EDL could try a few show tunes. "I am what I am", "I'm gonn'a wash that man right out of my hair", "Gee, Officer Krupke". And Pride could have a go at some of the hits from the most recent Love Music Hate Racism gig; a bit of Captain Dale, Petrichor and Shredded Lives.

Pragmatism. Magnanimity. Understanding.

You know what, it's actually quite fun. Anyone got Tommy Robinson's phone number?

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Don't bet on James Brokenshire saving devolution in Northern Ireland

The Northern Ireland secretary's decision to extend talks makes a settlement less, not more, likely. 

The deadline for the parties at Stormont to form a new executive has passed without an agreement. Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire has – as was inevitable – taken the least difficult option and opened a “short window of opportunity to resolve outstanding issues”.

Talks have been extended for a “short few weeks” – Brokenshire’s interpretation of the “reasonable period” allowed after the initial three weeks after the election elapsed. Despite his earlier warnings, there will be no snap election (for which he conceded there was “no appetite”).

Unhelpful though the tortured semantics of “a short few weeks” are, we can assume that new negotiations may well as last as long as the impending Commons recess, which begins on Thursday and ends on April 11th – after which, Brokenshire said, he will bring forward legislation to set regional rates in the absence of an executive. This, though not quite direct rule, would be the first step in that direction.  

So what changes now? Politically speaking and in the immediate term, not a great deal. For all the excited and frankly wishful chatter about the two parties approaching the final talks afresh after Martin McGuinness’ funeral last week, Sinn Fein and the DUP remain poles apart.  

The former declared talks to have failed a full day before the deadline, and Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams has since said there has been “no substantive progress” on the key issues at hand – particularly the DUP’s “minimalist” approach on the Irish language and marriage equality. Seemingly unassailable differences remain on a new Bill of Rights and measures to deal with the legacy of the Troubles. As such, both Adams and Sinn Fein's new leader Michelle O’Neill continue to stress their election lines: equality, respect, integrity, and, perhaps most tellingly, “no return to the status quo”.

Brokenshire clearly recognises that there will be no new executive without some movement on these issues: yesterday he referred to the talks to come as an “opportunity to resolve outstanding issues”. He is right to do so: Sinn Fein’s demands are, for the most part, as yet unimplemented provisions from the Stormont House and Fresh Start Agreements of 2014 and 2015. 

But will the DUP budge? It appears unlikely at first glance. Sinn Fein’s approach to negotiations has only heightened tensions between the would-be coalition partners, whose relationship has regressed to the openly adversarial (DUP leader Arlene Foster yesterday expressly blamed Sinn Fein for the collapse in talks).

There looks to be little appetite for compromise on Sinn Fein’s headline demands. The DUP’s opposition to historical prosecutions of Troubles veterans is well-publicised, and appears to be aligned with UK government thinking.

Nor does there appear to have been any real shift in the party’s position on legal recognition for the Irish language. Speaking on the BBC’s World at One yesterday afternoon, Ian Paisley Jr stressed in pretty woolly terms to the DUP’s commitment to “promoting minority languages”, which, however true, is not the commitment to an Irish language act that Sinn Fein are asking for. That the spirit of Paisley’s remarks was essentially the same as his leader’s contrarian take on the issue – she said, provocatively, that there was much a need for a Polish language act as an Irish language act – is not a promising sign.

The continuing fallout from the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal that triggered last month’s election also complicates matters. Though the London press have already relegated this public spending scandal to the footnotes, the full ramifications are yet to be seen. A full list of claimants was last week published by the Belfast News Letter, and the longer the process of negotiation and renegotiation drags on, the clearer the answer to the question of who exactly benefited from the scheme’s mismanagement becomes. Though, Foster's penance in the wake of the DUP’s calamitous election performance has gone some way to rehabilitating her public image, the taint of corruption could retoxify the brand. It isn’t difficult to see why veteran Stormont horse-traders like Reg Empey, the former leader of the UUP, believe an executive may well be unachievable until the inquiry into "cash for ash" delivers its ruling – a process which could take a year.

The political impasse, then, looks as insoluble as ever. Leaders of smaller parties such as the non-sectarian Alliance have blamed Brokenshire for the startling fact that there were no roundtable talks at any point during the past three weeks. The Northern Ireland secretary’s decision to extend talks for another fortnight could bury power-sharing as we know it for good. From Wednesday, the civil service will take control of the province’s budget, as per Section 59 of the Northern Ireland Act. The permanent secretary of the Department for Finance will immediately have access to just 75 per cent of available funds, and, if the situation persists, 95 per cent.

In the worst case scenario, this means cuts could well come hard and fast. All the better for Sinn Fein - as I wrote earlier this month, the imposition of austerity and Brexit from London offers an opportunity to parlay short-term pain into long-term political gain. Meanwhile, Brexit secretary David Davis has admitted that Northern Ireland would automatically rejoin the EU in the event of a border poll. The path to a united Ireland via direct rule looks clearer than ever before.

Unionists are not blind to this existential risk – and here Brokenshire’s bizarre insistence that he was ready to call Northern Ireland’s third election in twelve months exposes his political naivety. He maintains there is “little public appetite” for a new poll. He might be right here, but that doesn’t mean a revanchist DUP would refuse the opportunity, if it arose, to go back to a unionist electorate it believes have taken frit at Sinn Fein’s post-election manoeuvring. Some in the party are keen to do so, if only to put to bed what they deem to be premature and melodramatic talk of imminent Irish unity.

Another election would suit Sinn Fein’s long game. The more dysfunctional and unworkable devolved politics in the North, the stronger the logic for a quick transition to a united Ireland in the EU. Much of the Northern Irish political establishment deem Brokenshire a lightweight - as do many in his own party. That he seems not to have realised that threatening a new election wasn’t much of a threat at all – or foreseen this avoidable mess - does nothing to dispel that notion. 

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