northern irish protestants hear the white working class dog-whistle

View from Belfast: Republicans cheering on Tories, Loyalists for Corbyn, What’s going on?
Rory Carroll, Groon, Nov 17 2019

A Loyalist protest poster in east Belfast. Photo: Paul McErlane

James Matthews has heard that Boris Johnson is a backstabbing traitor who will sell Northern Ireland loyalists down the river. The loyalist sighs. He still wants the prime minister to win the election. “It’s all mixed up at the moment.” When the contradictions become too much and his head throbs from the paradoxes, Matthews, 76, a retired painter from Holywood, Co Down, retreats into meditative silence. “I turn off the radio.” He is not alone. This Brexit election has swivelled the usual political signposts for unionists, nationalists and non-aligned voters alike. Remainers have reason to back Brexiteers, nationalists have reason to cheer Tories, and unionists have reason to hope Jeremy Corbyn, a Sinn Féin sympathiser, ends up in Downing Street. Northern Ireland has passed through the looking glass into a campaign where voters are asked to believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast. The election is a combustible cocktail that combines questions about the region’s constitutional status with economic uncertainty, tribal allegiance, tactical voting, profound weariness and widespread confusion. Billy, a 56-year-old Belfast punk rocker, said:

I consider myself a socialist but I’d probably want Boris Johnson to win. I never thought I’d say that. But that’s the effect of being here, that’s Northern Ireland.

Voters in England face dilemmas in choosing between Labour, the Tories, the Liberal Democrats and Brexit party, but they are spared the counter-intuitive imponderables that confront Northern Ireland voters. Sinn Féin opposes Brexit, but it is holding a conference in Derry this weekend amid the giddy prospect of a victorious Tory PM ramming through a deal that advances republican goals. Jon Tonge, a political analyst, wrote in the Belfast Telegraph:

What Johnson proposes in terms of an all-Ireland economy arguably advances the cause of Irish unity more effectively than the abstention, armed struggle and episodic participation which have characterised republican tactics over the years. All-Ireland regulation of goods? Tick. An All-Ireland customs regime, even if Northern Ireland formally remains with the UK’s? Tick. Goods travelling between Great Britain and Northern Ireland treated as exports not internal trade, if likely to head onwards to the EU? Tick. Unionists apoplectic about what they see as the marginalisation of Northern Ireland within the UK? Tick.

Nationalist parties have agreed an electoral pact under a pro-Remain banner that will prove hard for some people to swallow. By standing aside in North Belfast to boost Sinn Féin’s chances, and obtain a quid pro quo in South Belfast, the SDLP is asking supporters to set aside their scorn for Sinn Féin and its policy of abstention. Unionist Brexiteers face even sharper quandaries. Do they accept Johnson’s assurances, and those of some business leaders, that the deal would be an economic boon and barely tinker with the union? If so do they vote against the DUP, which wants to kill the deal, and with it perhaps Brexit’s last hope? Retired 76-year-old civil servant George Chittick is torn. He feels a deal that weakens the union would be a steep price to pay for getting out of the EU. But Chittick worries more about Corbyn winning power. He says:

It’s about getting out of Europe. It’s a corrupt regime. If Boris Johnson does the dirty on us, we’ll do the dirty on him. It has to be the Tories. If that means Boris’s deal, so be it.

A hung parliament could restore DUP leverage at Westminster while presenting an acute predicament. Try to patch relations with Johnson, who threw the DUP under the bus, in hope of negotiating a new deal? The resulting imbroglio could torpedo Brexit, which gives Remainers reason to roll the dice with the DUP. Or it could lead to a no-deal crash-out that wreaks havoc on Northern Ireland. Or should the DUP support a Labour leader branded by many unionists as an IRA fellow traveller? Logic points to Corbyn, Newton Emerson, a unionist commentator, wrote in the Irish Times:

Labour is promising to negotiate a soft Brexit withdrawal agreement that would solve the DUP’s sea-border problem, followed by a second EU referendum that could solve all the DUP’s Brexit problems.

The party’s first election broadcast in Northern Ireland, aired last week, resolved the contradictions by making not a single reference to Brexit.

Here’s the Belfast Telegraph article:

Whisper it, but Sinn Fein could be happy with victory for Boris Johnson
Jon Tonge, Belfast Telegraph, Nov 14 2019

Michelle O’Neill

Sinn Fein’s ard fheis this weekend will be a mixture of excitement and nervousness. Major political change looms, with the possibility of a significant shift towards Irish economic unity. But several potentially tricky election contests are about to unfold. Foyle, Fermanagh-South Tyrone, North Belfast, and Michelle O’Neill versus John O’Dowd. As the delegates assemble in Londonderry, they might be forgiven for privately having mixed feelings about a Boris Johnson election victory. Brexit may be anathema to a party which has now been pro-EU for two decades, not that you would always think so, reading some of the critical material in An Phoblacht. Yet a Boris Brexit might be functional for Sinn Fein’s overarching Irish unity project. For what Johnson proposes in terms of an all-Ireland economy arguably advances the cause of Irish unity more effectively than the abstention, armed struggle and episodic participation which have characterised republican tactics over the years. All-Ireland regulation of goods? Tick. An All-Ireland customs regime, even if NI formally remains with the UK? Tick. Goods travelling between GB & NI treated as exports not internal trade, if likely to head onwards to the EU? Tick. Unionists apoplectic about what they see as the marginalisation of NI within the UK? Tick. Whilst Sinn Fein would never publicly admit the functionality of a British Tory election triumph, whisper it, but it might be far from disastrous for the Sinn Fein project. NI’s prospective closer alignment to Ireland and the EU, in terms of economic rules at least, could generate profound constitutional implications. The unionist-leaning or neutral business classes may come to appreciate economic unification so much that the EU, not the one between GB & NI, is their favoured alignment. With Irish unity no longer seen as threatening, they might conceivably vote in favour of such in the border poll which will surely eventually come. Unionists are certainly alive to the danger. As the DUP acknowledged at its recent conference session on New Generation Unionism, a successful defence of the UK Union needs to find support for it beyond those backing unionist parties.

John Finucane, Mary Lou McDonald, Michelle O’Neill, Michelle Gildernew

Before we get to all this though, there is the small matter of Sinn Fein’s own battle for Vice-President between Michelle O’Neill and John O’Dowd. There has been more republican election canvassing on the Shankill than there has from either of these two candidates, in a strange, silent contest. Candidature yes; campaigning no; a phantom election. Given that neither candidate has been able to articulate their particular party prospectus, the purpose of the ballot is unclear. O’Dowd was encouraged to stand and has a few big-name backers but taking part was a bold move in a party which does not encourage such prominent contests. That is not to say there have not been robust debates over the years: abortion policy, for starters, but the policies, not the personnel, have been the matters at stake. Immediately beyond the conference hall, a much noisier contest will be taking place, for the votes of Foyle constituents. The contest in 2017 was fraught, the SDLP pointing accusing fingers at the big growth in proxy voting in republican wards and Sinn Fein suggesting sour grapes as the party finally captured the SDLP’s citadel. Given the rules of election coverage, Sinn Fein will not get free BBC airtime in Northern Ireland for Mary Lou McDonald’s presidential speech on Saturday night, although RTE will cover the speech. Perhaps party supporters not in attendance will watch NI versus Holland instead. Perhaps.

John O’Dowd. (Photo: Liam McBurney/PA)

Sinn Fein has travelled a long way politically since the first ard fheis I attended as an observer (1996) when “alternative” decision-making structures were in place. Its politics have become more normalised and the party has had to contend with criticism from republican hardliners, some active in the city in which the party assembles for its conference. One policy not up for debate is the one about which many people have been fixated, abstention from Westminster. There is no internal appetite for change and no prospect of the required two-thirds majority being found to alter the policy. There are many within Sinn Fein who see abstention as a fundamental republican principle. Others, like Mitchell McLaughlin, honoured by the party this weekend for his political service, have long stated that the core reason is because there is no strategic value in going to Westminster. Rather like Stormont then. McLaughlin told me this nearly two decades ago, so the principle versus tactic difference is hardly new. The sum of those parts though, is the status quo. Sinn Fein swearing an oath of allegiance to a UK monarch is not going to happen. The real question is whether the party can perform well enough at the election to stop the SDLP doing so instead. Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool and co-author of books on Sinn Fein and the SDLP, the DUP and UU.

Here’s the Irish Times article:

DUP should be forced to admit Labour is its only hope
Newton Emerson, Irish Times, Nov 14 2019

imageArlene Foster. Photo: Paul Faith/AFP

One of the final occurrences at Westminster before parliament dissolved two weeks ago was a joint letter from the DUP and Labour’s fisheries spokesmen, the appropriately named Jim Shannon and Luke Pollard, attacking the British government over the proposed Brexit sea border. Both parties described their co-operation as unprecedented, but that was only true within the strict limits of this case. In Oct 2017, at the outset of its confidence-and-supply agreement with the Conservatives, the DUP sided with Labour on a state pensions dispute, leaving the government humiliated. There were many more examples of DUP-Labour dealing in the intervening years. From the beginning to the end of holding the balance of power at Westminster, Arlene Foster’s party kept its channels and options open with Jeremy Corbyn’s party, culminating last month in Labour saying its “door is always open” and the DUP hinting it was about to walk through. It is remarkable how many people find this hard to imagine. Although it has suited both parties to demonise each other among their supporters, the idea Labour would not work with the DUP because of political differences is demonstrably mistaken, while the idea the DUP would not work with Corbyn because he is a Sinn Féin supporter is simply ridiculous. The DUP was in government with Sinn Féin for a decade and has spent the past three years complaining it cannot renew the arrangement. When it comes to sitting around a cabinet table with people who share Corbyn’s policies and worldview, no party in the UK can match the DUP’s experience, Labour included.

A Sinn Féin-supporting prime minister might be in a different league to a Sinn Féin deputy first minister but the DUP could easily cope if it retained its king-maker role in a hung parliament. Several opinion polls this week make that prospect imaginable. Other polls predict prime minister Boris Johnson returning with a large majority. The phased withdrawal of the Brexit Party plus tactical voting among Remainers are adding to the complexity of forecasts. Yet the DUP is still escaping scrutiny over what it would do with Westminster influence, even while campaigning to maximise its influence. Logically, it must favour Corbyn over Johnson. There has been a complete breakdown in relations between the DUP and the prime minister. No unionist party in Northern Ireland supports Johnson’s deal and no wing of the Conservative party advocates changing the deal for unionism’s benefit. If Johnson wins a majority, he will ram his Brexit through. If he needs the DUP’s help to get into office then everyone will be back to where they are now, which is not where anyone wants to be. Labour, by contrast, is promising to negotiate a soft Brexit withdrawal agreement that would solve the DUP’s sea border problem, followed by a second EU referendum that could solve all the DUP’s Brexit problems. Brussels has vowed to facilitate the necessary talks and extensions. DUP leaders have said their preferred alternatives to Johnson’s deal are a “sensible deal” or no Brexit but they cannot bring themselves to admit this means preferring Labour. By refusing to accept that a Labour government is its only hope, the DUP is trying to avoid difficult questions about past misjudgments and future strategy. Its denial is becoming too ridiculous to sustain.

The party’s first Westminster election broadcast, released on Tuesday, contained no reference to Brexit, a laughable omission, and focused almost entirely on restoring Stormont. Is the risk the SNP would pose to the union less than the threat from Johnson’s deal? The broadcast said the election will be close and a strong DUP team could secure more confidence-and-supply funding for Northern Ireland. Then Foster added her party “will not support a Corbyn government.” Ironically, a Corbyn government is the best hope of restoring Stormont, as it would allay nationalist concerns about Brexit, the Tories and DUP confidence-and-supply agreements. Setting its face against this right to the last feels like one more corner the DUP is backing itself into. The party’s calculation is presumably that Corbyn will lose but it still richly deserves to be pressed on his possible victory. The DUP should not be allowed to quietly hope for an outright Labour majority that solves all unionism’s problems without requiring unionists to take responsibility. Nor should it get away with opposing Johnson’s deal while rejecting the only alternative for prime minister. The most intriguing scenario is the likeliest form of Labour victory, a minority administration propped up by the SNP in return for a second Scottish independence referendum. In theory, this is a unionist nightmare. In practice, a Labour-led government would neutralise some of the impetus for Scottish independence. If such a government required unionist support, what would the DUP do? Is the risk the SNP would pose to the union less than the threat from Johnson’s deal, which the DUP claims would effectively break up the UK? Answering that question might force the DUP to confront how much it has damaged the union itself.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.