Stormont could be the next territory for British politics' Ukip crisis. Photo: Flickr/Maryade
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Ukip fills a vacuum left by Westminster parties in Northern Ireland

Absent-minded protagonists? The UK parties are contributing to a political crisis in Northern Ireland.

As the Northern Ireland Assembly tinkers on the brink of disintegration this week, only one member of the UK government is at talks, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers. Former Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, a key player in the Peace Process, voiced concern that Northern Ireland’s political crisis is being ignored by Westminster, saying “I do understand political considerations are elsewhere,” referring to the threat of Ukip and the general election. He further used his political weight by writing to John Bercow, the speaker of the House.

This immediate disinterest is compounded by long-term political marginalisation of the Northern Irish electorate. The Labour Party refuse to allow candidates to run in Northern Ireland, despite support there, the Liberal Democrats don’t run and the Conservatives have allied with the Ulster Unionists, ruling out cross-community support. The only parties that organise across the whole of the UK are Ukip and the Green party. 

The growing Ukip support in Northern Ireland, demonstrated by the defection to Ukip of Bob Stoker, former Ulster Unionist Lord Mayor of Belfast, last week, puts into sharp relief the fact that this is a deliberate policy by Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats to avoid elections in Northern Ireland.

"Ukip’s door is open – so people should come and join Bob in creating a people’s revolution in politics," deputy leader of Ukip, Paul Nuttal said, "Your old parties locally are as stale and self-interested as the old parties are across the water." He added that Ukip would contest in all 18 Northern Irish constituencies in May.

On a local level the Northern Ireland Assembly is evidently in need of change anyway. That Stormont is "not fit for purpose", in the words of First Minister Peter Robinson, is demonstrated by the frustrated talks taking place this week. The majority party, the DUP, boycotted the first day in protest over the attendance of Irish Government Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan. 

"No self-respecting unionist will be present in any meeting to discuss internal Northern Ireland business where a seat at the table is given to the Irish representatives," the party quipped the evening before the talks were due to start. "The refusal of the DUP to attend here this morning shows their utter contempt for this process, their contempt for the two governments and their contempt and lack of respect for all of the other parties in this process," retorted the Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.

The fragile political system set up on Good Friday 1998, and consolidated in two subsequent agreements, was probably not meant to be permanent. Sectarianism was necessarily institutionalised by ensuring that both ‘sides of the community’ had, in theory, equal power. This has meant that the Sinn Fein and DUP are perpetually in a coalition government together, which puts into question democracy at a local level, but also cripples efficient decision-making.

As the First Minister Peter Robinson wrote in September, these "exceptional operational elements" make any decisions "time-consuming and sluggish". "The structures required cross-community agreement for every significant issue," he added, "a process that would have tested and defeated less divergent coalitions".

It still might defeat this coalition. In 2013 talks on Flags and Parades, two divisive issues, came to nothing. This week talks have dealt with the issues of flags, parades, handling of the historical trials extant from the Troubles, and, crucially, the looming welfare cuts. In what has rightly been called a budgetary crisis, Stormont’s budget for April next year is still £200m over what the Con-Lib coalition prescribed. Nick Clegg has warned that if an agreement cannot be reached, the government may have to go into "emergency mode".

As one commentator has noted, Stormont is outsourcing its functions to a panel comprising most of the Stormont representatives, and thus reducing its credibility. The private sector in Northern Ireland is also in despair at the situation. A "Make it work" plea, signed by prominent Northern Irish business and voluntary sector representatives, was published in the Belfast Telegraph on Monday. "Time is running out for us to make this place work, before our confidence, investment and tourism dries up again. Our people deserve forward-looking, efficient government," spokesman Peter McBride said.

"The most important thing a British government can be is an honest broker," Ed Miliband commented in 2012. "It is very hard to be an honest broker if you are also an electoral participant." Theresa Villiers shared a similar sentiment in her conference speech in September when she said that is right that Northern Ireland politicians "take ownership" of Northern Irish problems "if we are to have lasting solutions".

While Westminster parties feign an interest in allowing Northern Irish people to self-help, in practice they are denying them the right to organise political alternatives to the unworkable Northern Irish parties, and denying them the ability to integrate into the Westminster party system. This is seen most keenly with regard to the Labour Party. In 2003 the party conceded that they were discriminating against Northern Irish people by not allowing them to become members. In 2007, after legal pressure, the Northern Ireland Constituency Labour Party was set up. It is the only CLP that is not allowed to run candidates.

However, there is a history of appetite for cross-community left-wing political representatives. The Northern Ireland Labour Party contested elections from 1924 to 1987, with a high-point in 1958 when it returned four MPs to Stormont, leading the Northern Ireland Prime Minster Basil Brooke to declare in 1962 that the enemy (socialism) was "at the gate". However, the party was crippled by its stance on divisive religious issues, such as Sunday Observance, where hard-line Calvinists wanted to close playgrounds on Sundays, but Catholics opposed it. Finally, support for the moderate NILP dwindled fatally during the Troubles as politics became polarised.

Northern Ireland’s 57.6 per cent voter turnout at the 2010 general election (compared to a UK average of 65.1 per cent) was the lowest of any region of the UK in a General Election since 1945. This disengagement may reflect an important truth: there is no political option that can deliver real change and that is not defined by the old political grooves created during the Troubles. 

"It is not a sticking plaster approach which Stormont needs, but root-and-branch change, whereby mandatory coalition and its crippling mutual vetoes are ditched" the Tradition Unionist Voice party leader has said. And his warning should be taken seriously: "It is inevitable that one day the present unworkable Stormont will implode."

UK parties can no longer see themselves as impartial "brokers" in Northern Ireland. Indeed, the current political crisis has been facilitated partly by this disengagement.

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The 11 things we know after the Brexit plan debate

Labour may just have fallen into a trap. 

On Wednesday, both Labour and Tory MPs filed out of the Commons together to back a motion calling on the Prime Minister to commit to publish the government’s Brexit plan before Article 50 is triggered in March 2017. 

The motion was proposed by Labour, but the government agreed to back it after inserting its own amendment calling on MPs to “respect the wishes of the United Kingdom” and adhere to the original timetable. 

With questions on everything from the customs union to the Northern Irish border, it is clear that the Brexit minister David Davis will have a busy Christmas. Meanwhile, his declared intention to stay schtum about the meat of Brexit negotiations for now means the nation has been hanging off every titbit of news, including a snapped memo reading “have cake and eat it”. 

So, with confusion abounding, here is what we know from the Brexit plan debate: 

1. The government will set out a Brexit plan before triggering Article 50

The Brexit minister David Davis said that Parliament will get to hear the government’s “strategic plans” ahead of triggering Article 50, but that this will not include anything that will “jeopardise our negotiating position”. 

While this is something of a victory for the Remain MPs and the Opposition, the devil is in the detail. For example, this could still mean anything from a white paper to a brief description released days before the March deadline.

2. Parliament will get a say on converting EU law into UK law

Davis repeated that the Great Repeal Bill, which scraps the European Communities Act 1972, will be presented to the Commons during the two-year period following Article 50.

He said: “After that there will be a series of consequential legislative measures, some primary, some secondary, and on every measure the House will have a vote and say.”

In other words, MPs will get to debate how existing EU law is converted to UK law. But, crucially, that isn’t the same as getting to debate the trade negotiations. And the crucial trade-off between access to the single market versus freedom of movement is likely to be decided there. 

3. Parliament is almost sure to get a final vote on the Brexit deal

The European Parliament is expected to vote on the final Brexit deal, which means the government accepts it also needs parliamentary approval. Davis said: “It is inconceivable to me that if the European Parliament has a vote, this House does not.”

Davis also pledged to keep MPs as well-informed as MEPs will be.

However, as shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer pointed out to The New Statesman, this could still leave MPs facing the choice of passing a Brexit deal they disagree with or plunging into a post-EU abyss. 

4. The government still plans to trigger Article 50 in March

With German and French elections planned for 2017, Labour MP Geraint Davies asked if there was any point triggering Article 50 before the autumn. 

But Davis said there were 15 elections scheduled during the negotiation process, so such kind of delay was “simply not possible”. 

5. Themed debates are a clue to Brexit priorities

One way to get a measure of the government’s priorities is the themed debates it is holding on various areas covered by EU law, including two already held on workers’ rights and transport.  

Davis mentioned themed debates as a key way his department would be held to account. 

It's not exactly disclosure, but it is one step better than relying on a camera man papping advisers as they walk into No.10 with their notes on show. 

6. The immigration policy is likely to focus on unskilled migrants

At the Tory party conference, Theresa May hinted at a draconian immigration policy that had little time for “citizens of the world”, while Davis said the “clear message” from the Brexit vote was “control immigration”.

He struck a softer tone in the debate, saying: “Free movement of people cannot continue as it is now, but this will not mean pulling up the drawbridge.”

The government would try to win “the global battle for talent”, he added. If the government intends to stick to its migration target and, as this suggests, will keep the criteria for skilled immigrants flexible, the main target for a clampdown is clearly unskilled labour.  

7. The government is still trying to stay in the customs union

Pressed about the customs union by Anna Soubry, the outspoken Tory backbencher, Davis said the government is looking at “several options”. This includes Norway, which is in the single market but not the customs union, and Switzerland, which is in neither but has a customs agreement. 

(For what it's worth, the EU describes this as "a series of bilateral agreements where Switzerland has agreed to take on certain aspects of EU legislation in exchange for accessing the EU's single market". It also notes that Swiss exports to the EU are focused on a few sectors, like chemicals, machinery and, yes, watches.)

8. The government wants the status quo on security

Davis said that on security and law enforcement “our aim is to preserve the current relationship as best we can”. 

He said there is a “clear mutual interest in continued co-operation” and signalled a willingness for the UK to pitch in to ensure Europe is secure across borders. 

One of the big tests for this commitment will be if the government opts into Europol legislation which comes into force next year.

9. The Chancellor is wooing industries

Robin Walker, the under-secretary for Brexit, said Philip Hammond and Brexit ministers were meeting organisations in the City, and had also met representatives from the aerospace, energy, farming, chemicals, car manufacturing and tourism industries. 

However, Labour has already attacked the government for playing favourites with its secretive Nissan deal. Brexit ministers have a fine line to walk between diplomacy and what looks like a bribe. 

10. Devolved administrations are causing trouble

A meeting with leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ended badly, with the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon publicly declaring it “deeply frustrating”. The Scottish government has since ramped up its attempts to block Brexit in the courts. 

Walker took a more conciliatory tone, saying that the PM was “committed to full engagement with the devolved administrations” and said he undertook the task of “listening to the concerns” of their representatives. 

11. Remain MPs may have just voted for a trap

Those MPs backing Remain were divided on whether to back the debate with the government’s amendment, with the Green co-leader Caroline Lucas calling it “the Tories’ trap”.

She argued that it meant signing up to invoking Article 50 by March, and imposing a “tight timetable” and “arbitrary deadline”, all for a vaguely-worded Brexit plan. In the end, Lucas was one of the Remainers who voted against the motion, along with the SNP. 

George agrees – you can read his analysis of the Brexit trap here

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.