An excellent Fermanagh & South Tyrone Green Party meeting this evening – I meant to take some photos but there was so much to talk about that my camera stayed forgotten in my bag. It’s wonderful to have such support from brilliant friends and colleagues, and I’m feeling really confident about this year and this campaign. By the way, we’ve now fixed our meeting dates as the second Wednesday of every month, at 6pm in the Westville Hotel Enniskillen, so if you’re thinking of joining us, please feel free to come along.
Meanwhile I was a bit disappointed to read in the Fermanagh Herald that Tom Elliott’s suggestion for dealing with our flooding problems is to dredge the local rivers. I thought it was pretty well known by now that dredging does no good whatsover in these situations, and may even make flooding considerably worse. Here is a straightforward explanation of why.
The front page of this week’s Fermanagh Herald features the latest episode of the ongoing squabble-saga between Phil Flanagan (Sinn Fein MLA) and Tom Elliott (Ulster Unionist MP). Phil had posted a tweet suggesting that the priorities of the Roads Service might be influenced by a greater interest in loyalist order marches than in GAA games. Phil, of course, rather enjoys his role as enfant terrible of the Northern Ireland Assembly, having been elected at the tender age of 26, and Twitter is his usual medium of choice in getting a rise out of unionists, monarchists, and the easily shocked.
And, sure enough, the bait was taken once again by Tom Elliott, who demanded an apology. Phil accused Tom of “taking an unhealthy interest” in Phil’s social media activities, and so the ding-dong continues, filling up column inches through the silly season.
Does it matter? It’s obviously far from ideal if there is any truth in Phil’s accusations, just as it is if the unionist perception of bias on the part of Sinn Fein-controlled departments is justified. A shared future requires fair and open treatment of all sectors of the community and any serious breach of that principle needs proper investigation. But wherever scarce resources are being allocated, there are bound to be feelings of injustice. Any English parish council would tell us that you don’t need to be in post-conflict situation to hear grumbles of that nature.
I get on well with Phil, with whom I share many concerns, especially regarding global and environmental issues, about which he is serious and well-informed. But his job is as a Sinn Fein MLA and, as such, he has a vested interest in maintaining this kind of low-level sense of suspicion and antagonism. It is essential for Sinn Fein’s continued electoral success that it continues its public spats with unionism, while the Executive ministers work hand-in-glove at their pro-corporate agenda. Phil plays the role here of a licensed jester, keeping the audience entertained while the kingmakers get on with their business. The replacement of the cap and bells with 140 characters makes no difference to the antiquity of the profession.
Tom’s reaction was understandable but unhelpful. The maintenance of Northern Ireland’s roads is an entirely devolved matter, one to be dealt with in Stormont, by members of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Until a few weeks ago, Tom was an MLA, and no doubt it will, as he says himself, take a while for him to get used to his changed role. Any response, however, if one were needed, would have come better from his successor in the Assembly or his party colleague who is the relevant Minister. But, of course, the major unionist parties have just as much interest as Sinn Fein in adding fuel to the bad-tempered fires, persuading their electorates that the ‘other side’ are behaving atrociously, while the status quo keeps them comfortably in office.
Meanwhile the people of Fermanagh are getting fed up with the charade. They aren’t impressed by our MP’s continued refusal to attend a GAA game, even the historic quarter-final last weekend which united the county in hope and admiration, and they would like to know his position on the crucial Westminster Welfare Bill, but they know that Sinn Fein’s jibes aren’t the way to change that. What Fermanagh people want, above all, is representatives who will work together, treating one another with respect, and their communities with courtesy, to further the genuine and serious interests which we all share. Then we could all enjoy the jokes.
Well, the Big Move is over, we’re established in Enniskillen for good, and I’m ready to get back to this blog. I had no idea what my first post in the new series would be about, but when I read this story in the Impartial Reporter, I knew what it would have to be. I spent quite a bit of time with Michelle at the hustings for the Westminster elections, and she was unfailingly courteous and warm. Her speech at the count was dignified and gracious, and I have great respect for her. The burning of her effigy on a bonfire at Moygashel, with its accompanying chilling placard, shocked and appalled me. There is much in Sinn Fein’s organisation that I oppose, and many unanswered questions about past crimes carried out during the Troubles. But none of that makes this kind of behaviour acceptable. I was disappointed that Tom Elliott could not appreciate that this is not a time for the old ‘whataboutery’, but for simple decent human compassion. I would like to express my sympathy to Michelle and to her family, for whom this must be deeply painful, and hope that, working together, we can put this kind of vitriol, by any segment of the Fermanagh and South Tyrone community, firmly behind us.
I’ll be brief. I have had a couple of hours’ rest, but every time I closed my eyes, all I could see were serried ranks of politicians ….
We went up to Omagh Leisure Centre early, to catch the end of the West Tyrone count, which took place immediately before ours. Our Green Party candidate and friend Ciaran McClean (pictured with me above) did really well, against a very wide field.
As we were waiting for the official announcement of the result, the assembled photographers, in the absence of anyone properly famous, noticed that I was the only Fermanagh & South Tyrone candidate there, and there was a brief flurry of flashbulbs (or their contemporary equivalent) which was slightly bizarre for all of us. Janie slipped behind them for her own version.
Eventually our count began. I had thought that this would be a nerve-wracking experience, but there was so much to watch and talk about, that I didn’t have time to worry. The general consensus seemed to be that I would get around two hundred votes, so I was a little nervous about the prospect of not getting that far. As it turned out, though, by the time we took a look at my votes table (each of the candidates have one, at the top of the room) it was already healthily beyond that. Here is my final bundle.
Not that many people were interested in that, though, while Michelle and Tom’s votes were being stacked in their thousands.
Michelle had been expected to win, and for most of the time she seemed comfortably ahead, but a late surge in the unionist votes caught up and eventually ….
Cue enormous consternation from the assembled Sinn Fein notables (who later proved to include Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness) and elation from the Ulster Unionists, whose leader, Mike Nesbitt, suddenly appeared before the announcement, as though in a chaotic episode of This Is Your Life.
Meanwhile I was delighted on my own account, at having exceeded both our and the general expectations, received so many votes despite the intense polarisation of the seat, and outpolled the established Alliance Party.
And there was more good news from the other GPNI candidates, with both Steven and Clare getting their deposits back and Ross continuing to do well in the difficult seat of East Belfast. Here are their results:
If only the news from across the water could have been so good.
This evening I went to a public meeting organised by Unison (the union) to protest against the proposed closure of the Creamery House residential home in Kesh. Creamery House is the long-term and, everyone thought, permanent home of seven elderly people with learning difficulties. They have lived together for many years, and are in every way a family. Now the Western Health and Social Care Trust are proposing to evict and separate them, in the hope of saving a measly £10,000 a year.
In the Green Party we talk about politics for the common good. And this is exactly what we mean. Creamery House works, it benefits its residents, its staff and the residents and businesses that surround it. This is what community is. These are our principles, of social justice, sustainability and grassroots democracy in action.
There used to be a thing that people said. It was a bit of a cliché, and more honoured in the breach than the observance, but people knew it was what they were supposed to be doing, even if they couldn’t quite manage it. It’s that government exists to protect the weak from the strong. Maybe we’re old-fashioned, but we still believe that. We believe that when you’re a public representative, your first duty is to speak out for those without a voice, for those who don’t find it easy to argue for what they need and deserve. We’re not asking people to vote for us so that we can campaign for reduced corporation tax, or TTIP, or yet more privatisation. There are plenty of people to do that.
We need to get our priorities right. These cuts aren’t necessary and they aren’t inevitable. We’re on the eve of the eve of a general election. It’s time that more people stood up and said that if we can afford billions in bank bailouts, if we can afford to renew the useless Trident, then we can afford to provide decent, stable, caring places to live for those who ask so little and deserve so much. We can afford to do the right thing.
If you’d like to sign the petition against the closure, please contact me. I’ll check whether there’s an online version and if so will add the link here.
At the end of the evening, I was having my photograph taken with this sign, while Tom Elliott (the UUP candidate in the general election) was waiting for his turn. This seemed a bit silly to me – after all, we are both on the same side on this issue – so I asked him to join me for a picture. After all, we’ll be spending most of Thursday night together …
Now back to Monday, and the LAMP Fermanagh fracking hustings. As usual, there were four of us there, and as usual, John Coyle and I arrived first. For some reason (upon which you can speculate for yourselves) both Michelle Gildernew and Tom Elliott preferred to sit by John rather than by me. Michelle got there first and bagged it with her coat, which Tom didn’t notice and sat down there anyway, leading to a certain amount of banter about his attempts to take her seat and her getting it back again.
Anyway, videos of the full proceedings are available on the LAMP YouTube page, and will, if I get the time, be embedded and discussed on this site. Meanwhile there are just a couple of things I’d like to mention. The first is the one that has received the bulk of the media coverage, the Pledge. Here is the video clip of what happened:
As you’ll see, I was the first candidate to agree to sign this immediately, though John Coyle actually changed his mind and did so, albeit in pencil, during the course of the discussions. I was able to commit myself because this is an issue that I have been working on for so long and in such depth, and I had time, while Michelle and John were speaking, to consider it and see that it had no negative implications. It didn’t require me, as I made clear, to be bound by the view of the Chief Medical Officer and so didn’t affect in any way my commitment to a total ban on fracking. I would, of course, have been happy to sign a pledge that went much further. I don’t think, though, that too much should be made of the issue, or of the fact that Michelle wanted to discuss the pledge with her party colleagues before deciding whether to sign it. Although Sinn Fein has had an official policy of opposing fracking, they haven’t done as much on the ground as we have, so it’s natural that she would need to consult more widely.
A more important point was raised later in the evening, when the discussion was opened to questions from the floor. Here is the beginning of that session.
The question is being asked by Donal O’Cofaigh who stood (against a Green candidate, so he has no reason to flatter us) as an anti-fracking candidate in the local elections last year. At around four minutes into the video he is talking about the petition initiated by Steven Agnew in the Assembly last April. This action (we all incorrectly refer to it as a ‘petition of concern’ which is not its technical title, as Phil Flanagan later pointed out, but nothing turns on that) would, if it had gained the support of thirty MLAs, have referred DETI’s decision to extend Tamboran’s licence to the Executive. As Donal points out, only two non-Green Party MLAs signed it, neither of whom represented Fermanagh.
At about 5mins 50 secs, Tom Elliott is talking about why he didn’t sign it. He says (inter alia)
“I actually wasn’t notified about that …. as soon as I did I went to sign up but the time had ran out [sic] …. I would have signed that.”
You may notice me shaking my head in mystification during this explanation. The reason I was surprised was that the campaign to support Steven’s petition was one of the biggest ever in Northern Ireland, with MLAs receiving hundreds of emails, tweets and calls asking them to sign it. The volume was so great that on 12th April the Belfast Telegraph carried a story specifically about it.
One of those hundreds of emails was sent to Tom Elliott on 11th April by a frack-free campaigner. It was a very short message, simply asking him to sign the petition and making it clear who had launched it. He replied within half an hour, expressing his concern about the licence extension but not saying whether or not he would sign. The petition remained open for signatures well into May.
Today’s Fermanagh Herald included this picture, from our visit to the North Fermanagh Valley Group last week. Note the accidental Arlene-duplication in the caption. At least Tom Elliott had his battlebus in the background, plastered with an enormous picture of his face, so he’s unlikely to be entirely forgotten. Any more entertaining captions welcomed, so long as they’re courteous and tasteful. I could probably manage a prize for the best.
As so many people read my blog from all across the world, it’s probably about time that I explained a bit about the constituency for which I am standing.
I think it’s fair to describe Fermanagh and South Tyrone as one of the most interesting in the UK. On bad days that’s ‘interesting’ as in the apocryphal curse, ‘may you live in interesting times.’ On good days it’s genuinely intriguing.
Firstly, it’s currently the most marginal seat in the UK. Michelle Gildernew, the Sinn Fein candidate (who, like other Sinn Fein MPs does not actually take her seat at Westminster) won the 2010 election with four votes, after three recounts. The runner-up, Unionist ‘unity’ candidate Rodney Connor who at the time was a neighbour of ours (geographically, not politically) lodged an election petition with the courts challenging the verdict. The court found, after considering many issues, that three ballot boxes each contained one more vote that they should have done, but that it couldn’t identify the three. Even if they had all been for Michelle Gildernew, and all been invalid, this wouldn’t have affected the result, which would then have been a single vote Sinn Fein majority.
Secondly, it regularly records an extremely high turnout. In the 1951 election, it was 93.4%, the highest in any general election since 1918.
Thirdly, it’s the most westerly constituency in the UK.
The first two of these are a result of (and the third to a large extent the cause of) the fact that the population of Fermanagh and South Tyrone is finely balanced between nationalists (overwhelmingly Catholic) and unionists (ditto Protestant). It has therefore swung between these two groupings, with very little by way of votes for any differently defined candidates. Before 1950, the old constituency covered the whole of counties Fermanagh and Tyrone, and was the only one regularly to elect nationalist MPs. However, the northern part of Tyrone (Omagh etc.) was then added to Mid Ulster, leaving Fermanagh and South Tyrone as a desperately close contest.
Rodney Connor’s was far from the first election petition here, with Philip Clarke of Sinn Fein being unseated in 1955 on the grounds that his criminal conviction for IRA activity made him ineligible. But this was a minor flurry in comparison to the 1981 by-election, caused by the death of nationalist Frank Maguire.
In 1976 the British government had withdrawn special category status (making them de facto prisoners of war) from Irish republican prisoners. This had led to the ‘blanket’ and ‘dirty’ protests by the prisoners, and in 1980, by which time the intransigent Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, to the first hunger strike. The second hunger strike took place in 1981, and one of the participants, 26-year old Bobby Sands, stood in the by-election under the label “Anti H-Block/Armagh Political Prisoner”. He won by around 1400 votes, but died within a month.
It was this event which led directly to the success of Sinn Fein as a political party, and as a result the seat is of enormous symbolic and emotional importance to its members and supporters. Only last week, over thirty years after the death of Sands, Michelle Gildernew launched her campaign with the rallying cry:
“This seat belongs to Bobby Sands, this seat belongs to Sinn Fein, this seat belongs to you.”
It is therefore also of immense significance to the unionists, who speak constantly of the importance of ‘winning it back’. The fact that the constitutional position of Northern Ireland is governed by the Good Friday Agreement, and not decided by Westminster MPs, makes little or no difference to either side. ‘Fermanagh-South-Tyrone’ as it’s invariably pronounced, is a matter of pride, not of policy.
And it’s that pride that explains the perpetual bickering about electoral pacts. Generally, throughout the constituency’s history, one side has won, not by positive campaigning but because the other’s vote has been split by rival candidates. Hence Rodney Connor’s candidacy in 2010, and Tom Elliott’s this year, under a rather fragile-looking DUP/UUP agreement. Hence also Sinn Fein’s irritation with the SDLP for the latter’s temerity in insisting in running a candidate of its own.
So here I am, in the midst of all this history and legend and deal-making and emotion, trying to suggest that maybe people might like to vote according to their own best interests, or at least that of their children. Good luck with that one, as they say.
The wider effect, here as in most constituencies of Northern Ireland, is a Hobson’s choice between Tory and Tory.
The Ulster Unionists have of course traditionally been allied with the Conservative party, albeit perhaps a less abrasive, more paternalistic old-school Toryism. But this ‘pact’ is looking dangerously like the end for the UUP, and its absorption into the the DUP, whose corporate agenda marches even more closely to the beat of Cameron and Osborne.
As for Sinn Fein’s politicians, we know that they’ve learned all the right buzzwords – equality, progressive politics, anti-austerity. But we also know that, by their own admission, these are a ‘Trojan Horse‘ to smuggle in their own agenda: an authoritarian republicanism that puts an obsession with ‘the border’ over the interests of people on either side of it. While they talk about protecting the most vulnerable, they, along with the DUP are desperate to reduce corporation tax, a move which would do nothing but transfer wealth to the richest, while inflicting enormous damage on our real economy. It is quite clear, from their excuses for not signing Steven’s Agnew’s petition about Tamboran’s fracking licence to their hokey-cokey dance on welfare reform, that their paramount priority in the North is retaining their cosy power-share with the DUP. And meanwhile they don’t even take their seats in Westminster, to speak on the vital issues that face the UK as a whole and make common cause with those who really believe in an alternative to Tory brutality.
So, vote unionist and you get DUP/Tory; vote Sinn Fein and you get DUP/Tory.
Or you could try something different. In the Assembly, Green Party in Northern Ireland leader Steven Agnew has been acknowledged as the real opposition to the Executive parties’ conservative consensus. It was Steven who understood that, if you want to protect people from the worst excesses of benefit cuts, you amend the Bill to make it fairer before passing it, rather than inventing a rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul magical money mountain to compensate people later. As he knows, you can’t compensate anyone for the humiliation, pain and grief of undertaking the cruel corporately-adminstered work assessment tests that Steven’s dismissed amendments would have prevented. It was Steven who led the Assembly campaign against fracking, brought in the Children’s Bill to make departments co-operate in children’s interests, and spearheaded campaigns for countless other issues that really matter to the people of Northern Ireland.
In Westminster, the Green Party MP Caroline Lucas has played the same role, as the effective opposition to Tory cruelty and cronyism. Whether on war, welfare, fracking or free speech, Caroline has taken up the baton so carelessly dropped by the Labour Party and has run her socks off with it. Across the House of Commons, even her fiercest enemies acknowledge her hard work, effectiveness, meticulous research and entirely ethical, principled stance on every issue. If only one Green MP can achieve so much, just imagine what more of us could do…
This election is an opportunity for the voters of Northern Ireland to endorse the old sectarian politics represented by these pacts and abstentions, to accept the narrow focus of them-and-us battles and to resign themselves to another five years of Toryism, whatever official label it may have. And remember, the cuts have scarcely yet started here.
Or you can use your vote to send a different message, to let the inclusive celebration of yesterday spill over into tomorrow, to put the real needs of real people before ancient quarrels. You can use your vote to say that enough is enough, and you won’t be fooled or threatened into handing over yet more power and resources to the very rich and the parties that do their bidding. You can use your vote to bring about a different sort of politics, and a better sort of future. It’s up to you.
Well, that went all right. It turned out that they didn’t want the statements that they’d asked us for, we just dived straight into questions, but I think I generally acquitted myself all right. It was all very well-behaved and civilised, with no mention of anything controversial – you wouldn’t know that sectarianism even existed until I mentioned it at the end.
Here I am explaining quantitative easing, with Michelle Gildernew looking on. You can watch the whole thing on the Wimps TV site (see below) – the actual event begins about twelve minutes in.
Time for dinner!
p.s. The Wimps TV link doesn’t currently work – it’s come off the live site and isn’t on the edited videos yet, but I’ll add the new link when it’s available.