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Saturday Sound-off: Blather About Borders and #Brexit

Blather is an old Scots word ultimately derived from an earlier Scandinavian word for chatter or prattle. I could have used any one of many words to denote the nonsense that is still being uttered by British politicians who want the UK to leave the EU. I was tempted to use a crude reference to bovine excrement or an equally unsavoury noun usually associated with a certain part of the male anatomy that comes by the pair.

I caught a segment of the ‘Tonight‘ programme on Irish television earlier in the week in which Sir Jeffrey Donaldson was taking part. Asked what was his problem with the Single Market and the Customs Union, he asserted that they prevent the UK negotiating trade deals with non-EU countries, deals which he was sure would benefit Northern Ireland businesses. When it was pointed out that most of those countries, including those who are members of the Commonwealth, prefer to deal with the UK as part of the much larger EU market, he responded by saying he had recently returned from Egypt where he led a trade mission from Northern Ireland, securing lucrative contracts for Northern Ireland businesses.

I felt like shouting at the screen: “membership of the EU didn’t prevent you doing that, then!”

Also this week, Channel 4 News asked a random sample of English people to mark the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic on a map of the island. The results were astonishing, showing that most people have no idea that, for example, the most northern point of the island, Malin Head, is in the Republic. Britons frequently refer to Northerrn Ireland as “Ulster” – I used to do it myself but have carefully avoided doing so in this post. The fact is that the ancient Irish province of Ulster includes Donegal which is in the Republic, to the west of Northern Ireland.

But whilst this week’s controversy has been concentrated on the land border between the UK and the EU, and the implications for the Northern Ireland peace process of any reinstatement of a border between the two parts of the island of Ireland, no-one ought to lose sight of the UK’s east and south coasts with their many ports, from Aberdeen to Southampton, all of which handle traffic between the UK and continental Europe and all of which will need some degree of additional policing if the “best deal for Britain” that David Davis is so eager to achieve falls short of the existing arrangements. And then there are the 16 regional airports*, as well as Heathrow, Gatwick and Stanstead.

I am only an ordinary citizen, although I did once dabble in local politics and even stood as a candidate for the European parliament, but I cannot comprehend how anyone could imagine that any “deal” could be better than the one we already have. I make no apology for repeating again what I said before the referendum, here, and, afterwards, here, and have continued to say in the period since.

As this comprehensive Facebook post from Jon Danzig at Reasons2Remain makes clear, the months of uncertainty, negotiations, and costly preparations that the UK has been forced to endure, and will continue to endure through the proposed two year “transition period”, are utterly pointless if the deal that is struck at the end of the process looks anything like the one we already have. And, if it doesn’t, then businesses that rely on fast freight transfers between the UK and EU will be hampered and their customers, the citizens of Britain, will pay the price.

*For anyone interested the 16 are, in alphabetical order, Birmingham; Blackpool; Bournemouth; Bristol; Cardiff; East Midlands; Exeter; Humberside; Leeds Bradford; Liverpool; Luton; Manchester; Newcastle; Norwich; and Teesside.

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Blame: Job of Historians, or Not?

I am not a historian. I have recently begun studying history in a very informal way. I have not studied under a professional historian as one would if one took a university course. I read the works of others who are professionals. Sometimes reading about the same events as presented by different historians is instructive. One quickly learns that each historian brings his or her own perspective to understanding the event or events. Often that perspective is, consciously or sub-consciously, political. For example, I find that many Irish writers discussing the famine that afflicted Ireland between 1845 and 1852 seem to approach it from a politically left leaning viewpoint. This comes across in their condemnation of landlords and the overt market economics being pursued by the British government at the time.

Finn Dwyer is a frequent podcaster and blogger about Irish history having covered the Black Death in a recent series which became a book. I frequently share his posts via Twitter and my author page on Facebook.  He is, like me, currently working on a book about the famine. In this blog post, published on his site today, he discusses the role of historians in apportioning blame. He does so in the context of the weekend’s revelations about infant deaths in mother and baby homes that were hidden from the public eye by means of burial without ceremony in mass graves.

My own view is that if we confine ourselves merely to establishing the facts, without attempting to understand the reasons why they happened, we have little chance of preventing their repetition at some point in the future. That may mean blaming circumstance and faulty thought processes rather than individuals or institutions. It is, after all, the thought processes that need to be challenged. And alarms can be sounded if we should ever see a similar set of circumstances appear.

Finn’s post is here: http://irishhistorypodcast.ie/tuam-will-historians-help-or-hinder/

Making a Choice: #atozchallenge (X)

This post is for election nerds. If politics or statistics leave you cold, read no further. If, however, you want to try to understand how it is that supposedly democratic elections so often fail to produce a satisfactory outcome, read on.

In May 2015 the voters of the UK made their choice. 37% of them placed their ‘X’ against a candidate of the Conservative Party. Almost 13% placed their ‘X’ against the name of someone representing the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). Yet the Conservatives hold 331 of the seats in the new Parliament (51%) whilst UKIP holds just one seat.

The reason? Britain uses a system of voting known as First Past the Post (FPTP). In each electoral area the individual with most votes is the one deemed elected. So if there are a large number of candidates it is quite possible for someone to be declared the winner with fewer than 30% of the total votes cast in that area. A great deal, therefore, depends on the demographics of each electoral area. Across the United Kingdom there are electoral areas (called constituencies) where there is a tradition of voting for one or other of the two main parties which, broadly speaking, represent either working class values (Labour) or middle class aspirations (Conservative). This gives rise to two important effects:

  • In most constituencies the outcome is predictable, therefore a vote for any other candidate can be seen as a ‘wasted vote’, having no impact on the overall result.
  • In the relatively small number (about 15%) of constituencies where the demographic is mixed, the result could go either way. Therefore all parties concentrate their campaigning efforts on these ‘marginal’ areas. Electors in these constituencies are the ones with the power to determine who governs.

These discrepancies, between share of vote and seat share, suggest that UK elections are far from truly democratic, since the result is nearly always a government with minority electoral support. It is this fact that has made me a lifelong advocate of Proportional Representation, a system of elections that ensures the share of seats in the parliament matches the share of votes cast. It is important to understand that there are several such systems in use around the world, none of which is precisely proportional. All do, however, produce a result closer to the expressed wish of the electorate than does FTTP.

The system I have always favoured goes by the cumbersome title of ‘Single Transferable Vote in Multi-member Constituencies’, STV for short. Constituencies are larger than present UK constituencies – that is to say they have a larger population. Each enlarged constituency returns three or more representatives to parliament. Voters place candidates in order of preference on the ballot paper, listing them 1, 2, 3, etc., rather than marking with a ‘X’. In doing so, they are, in effect answering two supplementary questions after ‘which candidate would you like to represent you?’:

  • ‘If he or she gets more votes than he or she needs, who else would you like to represent you’, and
  • ‘If he or she doesn’t get enough votes, which of the remaining candidates would you choose?’

That’s the system in operation in Ireland. On February 26th this year an election was held in Ireland. And it revealed the problem inherent in the system. Fine Gael, the party with most votes, received just 25.5% of the votes cast. In second place, Fianna Fail received 24.3%. In other words, the 2 main parties, bitterly opposed to each other, could not muster 50% of the vote between them. Of the rest, only Sinn Fein received more than 10%. Two months after the election, Ireland still does not have a government. And it remains unclear if the parties will be able to agree on a minority administration any time soon, or if there will need to be another election, the outcome of which could well be no more conclusive.

Do I still favour proportional representation? Yes, because democracy demands it. But it is clear that FTTP is better able to produce stable government. In either case, those granted the honour of representing the people ought to pay attention to the underlying level of support for their particular viewpoint. They should not assume that they can implement every policy contained in their manifesto despite the obvious unpopularity of some of those policies. They must be willing to seek compromises, rather than arrogantly asserting the superiority of their own ideology.

Do you have experience of different electoral systems? I would especially welcome an explanation of the system in use in the USA in the current Presidential election.