Berry last blog

Since newstatesman.com relaunched on 30 November 2006 Sian Berry has been a regular contributor on h

Yes, I know I promised to file a blog on eco-towns a fortnight ago. However, I have to confess I was tempted into moonlighting it away to the Telegraph, who are running a series of stories on what they are calling ‘Gordon’s poll tax’. So, for an update on the impressive number of campaigns that have emerged to oppose the fifteen shortlisted eco-town sites, you’ll have to read my article here.

In other news, therefore, the Greens have scored a second decent result in a by-election with our best ever mid-term Westminster score of 7.4 per cent and second place in Haltemprice and Howden.

Congratulations to Shan Oakes, who blogged her determined campaign for this site, and who worked incredibly hard to win many new voters in a seat we haven’t contested for many years.

This comes just two weeks after an excellent third place for our candidate Mark Stephenson in Henley, on an election stage that carried a full slate of parties, and where we beat a Labour candidate for the first time in a parliamentary election.

Interesting developments also in the Census Alert campaign to prevent arms company Lockheed Martin running the 2011 Census. No, not the response from the government to our petition, which we received this week. Their three paragraph missive said nothing much, other than they were getting everyone to sign agreements to look after our personal data properly, which is not particularly reassuring.

However, the Treasury Select Committee have been taking up the cause, rightly supporting our concerns about how the US Patriot Act (which forces US companies and their subsidiaries to hand over any data they hold that is deemed of interest to their country’s intelligence agencies) would apply to any work done by Lockheed on our Census.

In a recent report, the committee put in a strongly worded request for more work to be done, saying: “We remain concerned that the personal information gathered through the 2011 Census could be subject to the United States Patriot Act and therefore we ask the government to take clear legal advice and advice from the US State Department and to publish it in response to this Report.”

We’re now looking forward to reading this advice. If the legal position continues to be a grey area then, faced with the choice between breaking UK privacy laws and the Patriot Act, which government would Lockheed choose to ignore? The point of our campaign remains that it would be better to ensure the Census data is not allowed anywhere near Lockheed Martin by removing them from the procurement process altogether.

And finally, goodbye, as this will be my last blog for this site. From this week I will be going, if not undercover, then at least behind the scenes to work full-time in the Green Party press office. We have an extraordinarily important two years ahead of us, with European elections in 2009 followed (or possibly preceded) by a general election in which we have our best chance ever of making a breakthrough into Parliament.

With no elections I can personally fight until 2010 at the earliest, I have decided the best way I can serve my party is to help promote the excellent work of Greens around the country, and to help Caroline Lucas MEP make history by winning in Brighton Pavilion, where we already have a majority in local election votes.

Westminster elections are, of course, a world away from local polls, so winning there will be a tough and exciting challenge, but also a huge opportunity to make a real difference to UK politics which I am looking forward to with great relish.

I will miss the opportunity to blog here though. Not the angry and libelous comments I get in response, naturally, but it has been a privilege to be able to highlight the work of a wide range of campaigns and causes on this site. Over the past 22 months, lots of green issues have obviously had an airing, from the campaign to stop Heathrow expansion to the exploitation of Mongolia’s natural resources and the failings of the Tory Quality of Life review.

But I’ve also been able to bring up much wider issues, including local high streets, fair pay campaigns and free and open source software. I hope the New Statesman will continue to give all these issues prominence and trust it will find someone to replace me who has even more to talk about.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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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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