Close the Ulster Bypass

Ulster is poorly served by the government.  The Beeb are not too warm to the DUP’s urging of direct rule.  The norms of language are unfavourable; to ‘impose direct rule’.  Perhaps if the phrase were ‘to re-assume direct responsibility’ it would be better received. The language may be batted about, but the new government must face the immediate reality of Ulster’s position, and their predecessors’ failures to address it.

From1921 to 1972, Ulster was an autonomous region, with a Governor and a Parliament of Northern Ireland, as if it had been a self-governing colony, and Westminster could practically ignore the place. Its institutions and laws were largely sundered from those of Great Britain and forced to fend for themselves. In 1972, the system collapsed in civil disorder, but instead of abolishing the Parliament and bringing Ulster back into normality, London enacted the suspension of the home-rule state with all powers passed to the Secretary of State, subject to Parliamentary assent to actual law-making, and the temporary became the permanent, until Tony Blair replaced it all with a new Assembly, which has been suspended for some years now.

Since 1921 then, Northern Ireland has been starved of all the advantages that the size of the United Kingdom brings. The old Parliament tried to keep up, but there were natural and financial limits to aspiration – that is the ‘Ulster Bypass’.

Today with the Assembly suspended, civil servants are left to run the show with no political oversight, and thus no motivation for innovation or even getting basic things right.  There is no authority to do anything new.

We moan at idiocies in government in Great Britain, but its vast size provides for every sort of expertise, not always wisely deployed, but there, and technocrats have produced what is effectively a luxury service, and we have come to expect that. Northern Ireland, though it is large in area, has a population which is barely half that of Manchester, and that is a small tax base and human resource.  You would not expect Manchester to run what would be virtually a national government, with all the luxuries and efficiencies that Westminster can command, let along half of Manchester.

Look at a few things we take for granted in our new, modern state, little things but which hint at what lies beneath.

Three sibling quangos in Great Britain, Historic England, Historic Environment Scotland and Cadw co-operate in best practice. Each has a website backed by a powerful database – the “National Heritage List for England“, “Canmore” and “Coflein“, each with a fast and efficient search function linked to extensive research material with academic references and an interactive Ordnance Survey mapping function. Every listed building or scheduled monument in Great Britain is at your fingertips. The Department for Communities in Northern Ireland has a cumbersome listed building search which has not been updated since 2015 the local government reform; for scheduled monuments and state care monuments – there is a PDF typed list if you can find it.

The Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland can provide no linked mapping because it is unresourced:  it sells to a far smaller market and so cannot do all that its counterpart in Great Britain does.  I have spoken to OSNI, and the equivalent in Dublin too, and they say the same:  they are small, have few customers and cannot provide the services.  This too then is an effect of the Ulster Bypass.

It would take very little indeed for the Ordnance Survey to take on six more counties, or for the NHLE or Canmore to take care of Ulster’s historic data, or for the Department of Communities to farm the historic estate out to the great resources wielded by English Heritage (‘Ulster Heritage’ perhaps) but without political direction and a willingness to dig up the Bypass, Ulstermen will be left behind, unable to dream of the conveniences those in the rest of the country take for granted.

Lobbing a wad of cash will not help if the structure is not there:  the structure does exist though in Great Britain, and can be deployed to serve the rest of the nation, namely Ulster.

I can give petty examples as symptomatic of the Ulster Bypass in operation and there could be many more.  Boris Johnson has given himself the title Minister for the Union, as in that role he should take these in matters in hand, and close the Ulster Bypass – otherwise Ulstermen will remain the poor relation in one of the richest countries in earth.


The Alliance revolution, possibly

A minor party came out of nowhere, overturned the dominant parties and swept through the election-which-should-not-have-happened.  Not the Brexit Party (though they did that too):  the Alliance Party.

In the politics of Great Britain is little with which to compare the Alliance Party.  They may be closer to the Liberal Democrats than anyone else, simply because they oppose everyone in a ‘radical centre’.  They are practically unknown to the media in ‘East Britain’ but in Ulster they have been about, making little waves, since 1970, and now they have broken into the European Parliament (if briefly, we hope).

The essence of Ulster’s politics is communal:  Protestant / Roman Catholic, and ne’er the twain shall meet in the ballot box.  The idea was originally nationalist / unionist, but as most Roman Catholics, according to the polls, support the union these days, it is harder to place.  The Alliance Party has always stood between the two camps, calling out to both sides, and polling in single figures.  However that understanding seems to be breaking down.  The European Parliamentary election came, and up pops the Alliance Party leader, Naomi Long, as a new-minted MEP.  It has broken the understanding:  until now, there have always been two unionist MEPs and one nationalist.  Now there is one of each, and Naomi.

Alliance came second in the poll (for any given definition of “second” in the peculiar preference system that operates), pushing Sinn Féin into third.  They did well a couple of weeks before too, in the local elections.  What this means has begun to worry those who rely on the easy certainties of communal politics.

Does the Alliance Party now represent a “new normal”?

Unionist exists essentially to protect the unity of the United Kingdom, and must remain dominant as long as there is a nationalist threat to it.  However, if that were to evaporate, then at present the Alliance Party are the only ones running normal politics, and this has to be to their advantage now.  The province is still socially divided but more accepting of the peaceful cohabitation of both cultures as part of one culture – that is very visible on the ground nowadays.  If as it seems the majority in both communities is for the union, then Roman Catholics continuing to vote for Sinn Féin while opposing their fundamental plank is bizarre, but as they may be repelled from voting for an explicitly Protestant party, perhaps the Alliance party represents a new way.  Yes, most of Alliance’s elected politicians are Protestant – Naomi Long is a Presbyterian, if with unusually liberal ideas – but they are not Protestantism triumphant, and they have both communities in their ranks of members and councillors.

This is not though normal politics as the secular side of the kingdom understands it as it is only one party with one set of ideas in the market:  Alliance are still one narrow vision of politics just like their sister party, the Liberal Democrats, and liberals in a traditionally conservative province should struggle.

Voters are faced with decisions breaking the predictable mould of Ulster politics:  does the Alliance Party represent a “new normal”, and if so, how can the other parties provide a response to protect their visions of society?  Even Slugger can provide no answer yet.

It suggests an intriguing possibility, as there is one other “normal” political party campaigning quietly in Ulster: the Conservatives.  They are small locally, but they might, potentially, offer another bolthole for those who no longer want to feed the communal bifurcation of politics.

This is getting ahead of ourselves.  The immediate breakthrough by the Alliance party in the locals and the Euros does not mean that they will achieve the same again at Westminster, whenever the general election happens.  The European election was only a playtime election after all, and a way for Protestant Remainers (a minority, but a substantial one) to make a point, but it hints at changing attitudes.