Friday 22 November 2019

North faces 'double whammy' in thorny UK vote

The Labour Party has a weird system for electing its leader. Last time round, that system brought about the choice of Ed Miliband at the expense of his far more impressive brother, David (REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth)
The Labour Party has a weird system for electing its leader. Last time round, that system brought about the choice of Ed Miliband at the expense of his far more impressive brother, David (REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth)
Labour party leader Ed Miliband speaks during a press conference in London (Chris Radburn/PA Wire)

James Downey

Can you think of a country, other than our own, where the majority party in a coalition government has no real empathy with its partners and treats them with - at best - tolerance?

The answer is easy. That is the state of affairs in the United Kingdom ahead of a general election at which the Conservatives hope to win an overall majority in the House of Commons and the Liberal Democrats will try to avoid a wipe-out.

The second part of the scenario is more credible than the first. Certainly the Lib Dems have to fight for mere survival. Their chances of participation in the next government are remote. But the pundits all consider a Tory majority unlikely. They forecast a hung parliament and a series of "strokes and deals".

Throughout the campaign so far, the opinion polls have shown the Conservatives and Labour neck and neck.

At first glance, therefore, one might think that Labour's chances of an outright victory must outweigh those of the Conservatives.

But the reality is more complicated, even bizarre.

The Labour Party has a weird system for electing its leader. Last time round, that system brought about the choice of Ed Miliband at the expense of his far more impressive brother, David.

Since then, Ed Miliband and his close ally Ed Balls, have not persuaded the public of their suitability as candidates for prime minister and chancellor of the exchequer.

Ed Balls has little or no answer to the allegation that he would be a "tax and spend" chancellor. The voters may or may not like the spending bit, but they certainly don't like the taxing bit.

The party also faces a bigger problem. Among the various possibilities for constructing a government in a hung parliament, a Labour-Scots Nationalist coalition has begun to take first place in the calculations.

But on the most vital question in present-day British politics - Scottish independence - the two parties are diametrically opposed.

And in Scotland, Labour is the party in danger of a wipe-out.

If almost all the Labour seats there are lost to the nationalists, and if the United Kingdom then breaks up, Scottish votes will no longer figure in UK general elections.

In their absence, Labour may never win again.

Another proposition lately mooted is that, if the election result is very tight, the votes of MPs representing Northern Ireland could enter the reckoning.

A very long shot? Yes, of course, but some people have started to take it seriously. Evidently Peter Robinson takes it seriously. He has recently given a good impression of a cat contemplating a saucer of milk.

The history of Unionist members of the House of Commons gives no room for optimism. At various times when their votes were eagerly sought by British parties in power they were, shall we say, less than co-operative in all-party attempts to find a Northern settlement.

And if by some misfortune Sinn Féin came into the reckoning, the chances of co-operation would be even less.

Sinn Féin's brass-necked obstructionism is a world's wonder. Or rather, it used to be.

Over the years, most people here and abroad have ceased to wonder; ceased to take any interest.

Seventeen years on from the Good Friday Agreement, the Northern Ireland settlement, at which we once rejoiced, has still not "bedded down". The American experience tells a tale of disillusionment.

When Gerry Adams visited the United States recently, Hillary Clinton attended a reception but did no more than utter a couple of platitudes which showed that, in effect, she had nothing to say. Who could blame her?

Here at home, we are more concerned about the never-ending examples of Sinn Féin cynicism, as witness the reaction to the sex abuse scandals and to Mary Lou McDonald's breach of Dáil rules.

None of this, however, will have any effect on Northern voting patterns in the forthcoming general election. As always, the event will take the form of a sectarian headcount.

Yet there has seldom been a period in peacetime when so many threats of historic proportions came together or when there was a greater need for serious politics.

When the Scots hold their next referendum, they will probably vote for independence. They very nearly did the last time round, and nothing has happened since to reverse the trend.

Where will that leave Northern Ireland?

And where will that leave British nuclear submarines now based in Scotland? We may regard them as of little or no importance, but all UK governments since 1945 have taken the view that they helped to maintain Britain's position at the "top table".

And if David Cameron retains the premiership, he has pledged to hold another referendum, this time on exiting the European Union. If Britain actually does leave the EU, it will be calamitous not only for Britain but for Ireland and for Europe as a whole.

And has anybody taken note of the likely consequences, political and economic, for Northern Ireland?

The North's economy is in poor shape, and the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin have not helped with their latest idiotic quarrel. They need foreign investment, not silly arguments.

How would potential investors feel about investing in a Northern Ireland struck by a "double whammy" of Scottish departure from the United Kingdom and English departure from Europe?

As for my own opinion, I incline to think that the first will happen and the second will not.

Assuming that Cameron's referendum ever takes place - something highly uncertain - the entire British establishment, especially the powerful financial sector, will campaign fervently against withdrawal from the European Union.

How will the right-wing media respond? They hate the EU and constantly denigrate it, but they usually support the establishment.

Still, regardless of what side the media take, I would expect the establishment to win.

No matter what results elections and referendums produce, it almost always comes out on top.

Irish Independent

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