Working towards Irish Unity

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So, what does 2024 look like?

Political prediction-peddling is a mug’s game. But let me nevertheless lurch forwards into the realm of pointless speculation, poring over the coffee grinds in my flat white in the process, and offer you the following.

And so, 2024 begin much as 2023 ended.

With Jeffrey Donaldson stood there, like a man wearing expensive new shoes who nevertheless knows that he must walk across a muddy field. He pushes a toe into the grassy ooze only to recoil in dread. Still, he knows he is going to have to make a move at some point.

The DUPs near two-year boycott of the assembly is a busted flush. Donaldson can see that. He also recognises there is no return to direct rule.

If the stalemate continues and they are forced to intervene, British ministers will loop-in Dublin over the short-term governance of the place – as much to upset unionists and teach them a lesson as to pacify nationalists and the Irish government.

The sagacious Alex Kane likens Northern Ireland to a British ‘granny flat.’ If there is no return of the Good Friday Agreement institutions by the end of March, it will start to evolve into a British-Irish condominium. Do unionists want that instead?

What is certain is that the British government (of the Conservative and Unionist variety, let us not forget) is not going to budge on anything substantive to placate the DUP.

There will be no reworking of the Windsor Framework to appease the magical thinking of the unionist lunatic fringe. British Tories work on the general assumption that you might not be able to buy a unionist, but you can usually rent one. Their obduracy was never going to be rewarded beyond stuffing their mouths with gold.

At the root of the problem for Donaldson is this. The British interest and the UK’s interest are subtly different concepts – and the former is always going to win out over the latter. Northern Ireland unionists comprise around 1% of the UK population and Northern Ireland represents barely 1.5% of its GDP.

Do the political maths.

Why upend 98% of the British economy and upset 99% of its population for the DUP? Unionists are not so much the tail that wags the dog as the stump of a tail.

In his quiet moments, Jeffrey Donaldson now probably regrets boarding the first-class carriage of Lunatic Express, driven by Bryson, Alister and Hoey. He knows it’s going to run out of track and plunge into a ravine. Yet he also lacks the courage to act and wants to avoid the fate of Terence O’Neill, Brian Faulkner and David Trimble amid cries of ‘sell out’ from his own side.

But Ian Paisley, the man Donaldson backed after ditching Trimble and the Ulster Unionists, proves the point that you sometimes need to jumpstart political parties – as the old man did by entering power-sharing in 2007. Boldness creates its own momentum.

Meanwhile, everyone in Northern Ireland suffers as a result – with dysfunctional politics, broken public services, industrial unrest, a cost-of-living crisis and a flatlining economy.

The January 18 deadline for the restoration of the assembly has come and gone, with the Secretary of State, Chris Heaton-Harris, making clear he will simply toe-bung the Fanta can down the road once again, rather than call fresh elections.

Today’s mini-general strike – which a functioning executive would have prevented – will come and go, with nothing resolved and no-one in Britain caring a toss. The irony, of course, is that this is the only strike in the history of industrial disputes where the money is sat there, ready and waiting to fix the problem.

To be fair to Heaton-Harris, his tactics are correct. Like Jim Bowen on Bullseye, he is showing voters the £3.3 billion star prize they could have won – if only their local politicians were on target. By going over their heads to the public he still hopes to shame the DUP back into office.

A fair old chunk of change for a place of just 1.9 million people. (I can only imagine what Greater Manchester’s mayor, Andy Burnham, serving a population of three million, would do with that amount of cash).

Anyway, enough of the Stormont soap opera, 2024 is also a big election year.

British and Irish general elections are pencilled in for the autumn, while Irish voters also go to the polls for the European Parliament and the US picks its next president. Each has a bearing on Northern Irish politics and the wider question of Irish unity.

The DUP will be desperate to inch ahead of the pack to claim a majority of Northern Irish Westminster seats are unionist-held after losing that title in 2019.

It’s unlikely to happen. Not according to those clever people at ElecotralCalculus who predict the outcome will remain nine nationalists, eight unionists and a single Alliance MP. We can expect Sinn Fein and the SDLP to stand aside for each other again in Belfast North and the reworked Belfast South, while Alliance’s Sorcha Eastwood will be pushing hard against Donaldson in his Lagan Valley seat (no doubt blaming him – with enormous justification – for the parlous state of Northern Ireland) with her colleague, Stephen Farry, hanging-on in North Down.

How will the SDLP and Ulster Unionists – once les grand fromages of Northern Irish politics – fare this year? I suspect they can’t really fall any lower than they already have at around 7-8% apiece, although Sinn Fein will be gunning for Colum Eastwood’s Foyle seat in the Westminster election. Beyond that, neither party merits much analysis.

The Euros in June might give us a sense of how Sinn Fein’s vote is bearing up ahead of the Dail elections in the autumn. Will real votes correspond with the polls – where Sinn Fein has been leading the pack for the past four years straight?

I reckon so, but there are a couple of snags. The first is the growing discontent about immigration. Dublin’s liberal media is doing its best to characterise the various protests around the country at the dispersal of asylum seekers as the product of a burgeoning ‘far right.’

Well, it looks to me like middle-aged ladies sat in deckchairs outside the front of provincial hotels. Not many skinheads and Swastikas. Lots of Irish Tricolours wafting in the background and thermos flasks being passed around to the strains of The Wolfe Tones.

Three in four voters think that immigration levels are too high – exacerbating the housing and cost-of-living pressures, with that figure rising to four in five of Sinn Fein’s supporters. It is never ideal to have elite opinion and public opinion in two different places.

In Ireland’s open political system, its relatively straightforward for an avowedly anti-immigration party to make electoral headway. Might that come at Sinn Fein’s expense? One to watch.

What about FFFG? I don’t see much point distinguishing between the Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee of southern politics any longer. Their grisly union, forged in opposition to Sinn Fein’s surge at the last election, will continue given half a chance.

If the numbers allow it, the two old parties will again lock in a clammy embrace to keep out the Shinners and satisfy the property-owning class. Assuming, of course, that their leading lights actually stick around. I suspect Varadkar, Martin, Coveney and Pascal Donohoe will be off if they get the sniff of a decent international job.

This is also the year when the next Irish presidential election will take shape. Bertie Ahern is on manoeuvres, but how would they pay him his salary if he still has no bank account? Please tell me there are better candidates waiting in the wings.

Okay, let me hedge my bets no further and push out my chips on some hard predictions.

I will stick out my neck and say that President Biden will be re-elected for a second term and that Donald Trump will not make it onto the ballot paper as the Republican candidate. (Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina is coming up on the rails against the underwhelming Florida governor Ron DeSantis).

Closer to home, we have the Tories under Rishi Sunak disintegrating before our eyes. Yet Keir Starmer still has an electoral mountain to climb – requiring a bigger swing than Tony Blair managed in the 1997 New Labour landslide – so there is little complacency and new curtain-measuring going on in Labourland. They will win, but it will be tighter than it looks right now.

So, we will be dealing with a new secretary of state by the winter (we’re looking at a November election date). Logically, it will be the current shadow, Hilary Benn, but it would not surprise me if his talents were used elsewhere. It depends if Stormont is functioning or not.

I think Sinn Fein will top the poll in the Irish election, but the party needs to be hitting 30% or higher to stand a chance of leading the next government. Nothing is guaranteed at this stage.

I predicted last year that Jeffrey Donaldson would not see out 2023 at the helm of the DUP. Should I be like his party and even when I am wrong still claim that I am right?

Either way, let me roll the prediction forward. He will be off in 2024. He clearly does not enjoy playing leader and would rather head sleepy trade missions to Cameroon than wait around to see a burning effigy of himself on an 11th night bonfire. (His guaranteed fate when the DUP eventually returns to Stormont with nothing of value to show on the Windsor deal).

As for the others, well Jamie will still be subjugated, Jim will still be outraged and Kate will still remind every member of Vauxhall constituency Labour party that they should have deselected her years ago.

So, a lot of talking and a lot of voting. But what of Irish unity?

We United Irelanders need to up our game in 2024. A lot of emphasis – far too much for my liking – has been placed on the calculation that a Sinn Fein victory leads to the establishment of citizen’s assembly and then on to a border poll.

Its abundantly clear that if we get another government including Micheal Marrtin and Leo Varadkar that will not happen.

So, this needs to be the year when United Irelanders stop treading water. I must have been asked a million times, ‘Ah, but what would it be like?’ There is a big chunk of the Irish electorate, north and south, that is waiting for a response before fully signing up.

Now I believe they will, but there has been far too much painting the landscape and not enough adding-in the fine details. These ‘wobblies’ as Professor Brendan O’Leary referred to them when we spoke to him in our online seminar last June, want proper answers – and that’s fair enough.

So, regardless of the election result in the south, the debate must evolve into a far more detailed discussion about the offer. The economic and public policy benefits of unity. No more spit-balling about the abstract principle of change, or circular discussion around flags and anthems. We need to move onto hard facts and practicalities. Jobs. Public services. Devolved power.

Everything else is commentary.

There is a massive appetite to understand what Irish unity will look and feel like. I am going to get around to having a bash at answering this point myself, but it needs lots of other voices to wade in too.

Happy 2024.