He will be
editing this new “Red, White and Blue” column, focusing on politics across the
United Kingdom, every Thursday.
It is hard to believe that Belfast City
Council, when it voted to restrict the flying of the Union Flag on the City
Hall to a series of ‘designated days’, could foresee the scale of the tide of
loyalist fury that its decision would unleash.
For those unfamiliar with events, a brief
recap: following an unsuccessful motion by the two nationalist parties on
Belfast council to ban the flying of the Union Flag over city hall, a motion
was passed to restrict it to certain official days (such as the Queen’s
birthday). This motion was supported by Sinn Fein, the SDLP, and the
non-aligned Alliance Party, which holds the balance of power. The Ulster
Unionist and Democratic Unionist parties voted against.
Protests at the time were to be expected.
Some protests turning violent was also probable, this being Northern Ireland.
Even the attempt by protesters to storm the building, temporarily halting
council proceedings before the vote, was not surprising.
But I don’t think many people were expecting
the protests to sustain themselves this long, let alone evolve into fierce
expressions of loyalist discontent across a whole range of issues. For nobody
is in any doubt anymore that these are just about the flag: one of the groups
behind the protests recently demanded the
resignation of Peter Robinson, the First Minister whose Democratic Unionist
Party has been accused by some of fanning the flames in the first place to
punish the Alliance Party, whose sole MP Naomi Long unseated Mr Robinson in
Belfast East at the 2010 election.
Two recent developments in the province have
impaled the main unionist parties on the horns of a dilemma. The first is
loyalist disengagement from politics, which is not only fuelling the riots but
costing unionism seats on both local councils and the Assembly (West Belfast,
for example, has more than enough pro-union voters to return an MLA, but does
The second is the release of the most recent
census figures, which show for the first time a Protestant minority in the six
counties. Interestingly, despite this the proportion of people identifying as
“Irish” was only 30 per cent. Following on from the last Life and Times Survey
(which showed a majority of Catholics in favour of maintaining the
constitutional status quo), the obvious task for unionism seemed clear: find a
way to win over those Catholics who are reconciled to Britain, but still cannot
or will not vote for pro-union parties.
Both the UUP and the DUP looked to be trying
to make progress on that score before the flag fiasco kicked off. Events since
have highlighted the dilemma in stark terms: it seems impossible for the same
party to appeal to both disaffected loyalists and persuadable Catholics at the
It gets worse. In addition to Catholic “swing
voters”, there is a large chunk of moderate unionist voters who do not much
sympathise with the current protests or anybody who looks to be trying to
exploit them. This group is the core vote, if one exists, for the Alliance
Party, which formally abandoned unionism some time ago. On the other hand, many
loyalists now harbour a deep antipathy to the Alliance and anybody seen to
consort with them.
This would be less of a problem if the UUP
and DUP were more distinct. Time was that the UUP would chase moderate unionist
voters, whilst the DUP would do more to represent loyalists. With the DUP now
the majority party they don’t have the leeway to pander to street protests that
they used to (although the instinct is still there, unhelpfully), whilst the
UUP has failed to adapt to minority party status at all, instead functioning as
a sort of DUP-lite. As a result, both parties are pursuing the same vote in the
“middle” of the unionist electorate, shedding both moderates and loyalists on
Is there any potential in this for the
Northern Irish Conservatives? Well, possibly. Whilst there is very little in
the party platform to appeal to disaffected loyalists, the moderate unionist
electorate that’s abandoning the UUP for the Alliance could provide a base. Not
only is there room to move in on their vote, but if the UUP’s hard-line wing
remains committed to convergence with the DUP one can’t rule out the
possibility of defections.
However, the NI Tories have fallen into the
trap of over-hyping defections that didn’t end up happening before. The fact
that we could derive some advantage
from the UUP’s woes certainly doesn’t mean we will.
As for the loyalists, the most important
thing is to reassure them that, despite some appearances to the contrary, the
Union is more secure than it has been for a while. The government has a role to
play in doing that: Theresa Villiers’ speech
on the subject hit the right theme. But most of the legwork there has to be
done by politicians in Northern Ireland.
Currency and submarines in Scotland
In Scotland meanwhile, the SNP are manning
the walls to fend off the latest threat to their rosy projections of a
post-independence Scotland – the supposed currency union with the rUK. This is
a policy that has already suffered setbacks, not least the unravelling of
Nicola Sturgeon’s assertion that an independent Scotland would get a seat on
the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee (it turned out that nobody had
even asked the Bank, and the answer was no).
Now, in response to the notion that the rUK
might not actually consent to maintaining ‘Sterling Zone’ currency union with a
fiscally independent Scotland – and
not without cause – Nationalist treasury spokesman Stewart Hosie has
indicated that the SNP might pursue “a
less formal arrangement”.
If this is a serious proposal, it would leave
Scotland using a currency over which it had no control, administered by a
freshly foreign country without the interests of the Scottish economy in mind.
Quite aside from how international investors might view the business environment
that would create, it’s an interesting new take on ‘independence’.
The other big debate is the ongoing one about
the future of shipbuilding and the Royal Navy’s submarine bases. For the
former, the Ministry of Defence has made it very clear
that it doesn’t build warships in foreign countries, and the SNP is drawing
fire from shipbuilding unions over what future an independent Scotland can
offer their members.
As for the latter, some within the SNP are
trying to maintain the position that the rUK would obligingly decamp its
nuclear submarines (the SNP’s Scotland being nuclear-free) whilst leaving
everything else in place. Others, including defence spokesman Angus Robertson
MP, claim that the requirements of a new Scottish Defence Force (which seems to
be the consensus on the name, ‘armies’ being for baddie nations like Britain)
would pick up most of the employment shortfall. Which looks
to be nonsense.
But with naval bases being hugely important
regional employers – the Faslane base is apparently “the
largest employment site in Scotland” – the debate over their future could
sway tens of thousands of votes.