Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Sinn Fein's call for a Border Poll

In the wake of Nicola Sturgeon's call for a constitutional referendum in Scotland, Sinn Fein have repeated their long-standing demand for a border poll here as well.

Michelle O'Neill and Sinn Fein MLAs but no Gerry Kelly

The call was made by their Stormont leader Michelle O'Neill, who was surrounded in the Great Hall by a number of Sinn Fein MLAs.  However noticeable by his absence from the photograph was veteran republican Gerry Kelly.

Of course there was a previous Border Poll and that was held on 8 March 1973.  It was boycotted by both Sinn Fein and the SDLP, as was their democratic right, and the result was that 98.9% of those who voted were in favour of Northern Ireland remaining within the United Kingdom.

Old Bailey car bomb which injured two hundred people
The republican movement boycotted the 1973 Border Poll but they did mark it in another way.  On the day of the poll in Northern Ireland, a team of IRA terrorists, including Gerry Kelly, placed a car bomb at the Old Bailey in London.

A victim of the Old Bailey bomb
Two hundred people were injured and one man died from a heart attack brought on by the bomb.  This was the start of the Provisional IRA bombing campaign in Great Britain.

I don't know why Sinn Fein omitted Gerry Kelly from their set-piece statement in the Great Hall but in view of his role on the day of that Border Poll they were certainly wise to do so.

A new Border Poll can only be called by the Northern Ireland Secretary of State if he believes that there is likely to be a majority for a United Ireland and there is no evidence for that.  Many nationalists who vote for the SDLP and even some of those who vote for Sinn Fein actually prefer the benefits of the United Kingdom to the prospect of a United Ireland.

Even the Republic's Minister for Foreign Affairs, Charlie Flanagan TD, has said it would be 'premature' and 'for another day'.  Not much enthusiasm there!

The Sinn Fein demand is simply a repetition of a long-standing demand and one that is designed to be divisive and destabilising.  Remember what the independence referendum campaign did to Scotland.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

An Irish language strategy, an anither yin forbye

High Court in Belfast
Recently the High Court in Belfast ruled that the Northern Ireland Executive had breached its statutory duties by failing to implement an Irish language strategy.  

Judge Paul Maguire ruled in favour of a judicial review brought by the Irish language group Conradh na Gaeilge (Gaelic League), who said the Executive had not made good on a commitment to adopt an Irish language strategy as set out in the St Andrews Agreement Act and the Programme for Government 2011-2015.

This was an important decision and not just for the Irish language community because the ruling also meant that the Northern Ireland Executive had failed in its duty to implement an Ulster-Scots strategy.

The St Andrews Agreement Act included two commitments, one for Irish and one for Ulster-Scots.
The Executive Committee shall adopt a strategy setting out how it proposed to enhance and protect the development of the Irish language.
The Executive Committee shall adopt a strategy setting out it proposed to enhance and develop the Ulster-Scots language, heritage and culture.
There was also a requirement on the Executive Committee to 'keep under review each of the strategies'.

The St Andrews Agreement Act required the development of an Irish language strategy, not an Irish Language Act, and it also required the development of an Ulster-Scots strategy.  Moreover since the principle of 'equality' is so central to the governance of Northern Ireland we would expect these two strategies to be similar in their ambitions, aspirations and impact.

Caral Ni Chuilin (Sinn Fein)
Caral Ni Chuilin, the Sinn Fein Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure, did bring forward strategies for Irish and Ulster-Scots but since these were cross-cutting and contentious they required Executive approval and they did not receive that approval.

There were two reasons why they did not receive DUP approval.  The first was that the Irish strategy included a specific commitment to an Irish Language Act and the second was that, in spite of Sinn Fein's  rhetoric about 'equality' there was no equity between the two strategies.  The Irish strategy was a gold-plated strategy whereas the Ulster-Scots strategy was lacking in scope, substance and vision.

As a result there was no endorsement from the DUP ministers and the two strategies which had been drawn up under the Sinn Fein minister were left languishing.

Therefore the legal case taken against the Executive by Conradh na Gaeilge and the ruling by Judge Maguire has implications for Ulster-Scots language, culture and heritage, as well as the Irish language.  

Friday, 10 March 2017

Balance in the BBC

This week has passed very quickly.  I have started to clear up constituency cases as the first step in closing down my constituency office.  However that will take some time.

Alongside that I have spent two days in Armagh at a workshop for the Commission on Flags, Identity Culture and Tradition.  Over the past few months the Commission has held public meetings and sectoral meetings across Northern Ireland to hear as many views as possible.  Because of other commitments I was only able to attend the consultation event in the Spectrum Centre but if the other events were as frank and forthright as that one it was a very useful process.  The next stage for the Commission is to collate and consider the issues that have been raised but there will be another nine months of work before a final report is produced.

As well as interviews for both BBC and UTV on language issues, I have taken part in several radio programmes including Nolan, Talkback and the other Nolan radio programme on Five Live.  I also have a television programme lined up for Monday night and continue to write a weekly column in the Belfast Telegraph.

The BBC is a 'public service broadcaster', paid for by the public, and has particular responsibilities as regards fairness and balance.  I took the opportunity to highlight that issue of balance, especially in regard to commentators and contributors.  It seems to be that too often it is the same people on the same programmes, time after time after time.  Simply relying on a handful of journalists and academics, who comprise the current 'commentariat', does not provide the necessary balance.  Even this morning a journalist from a unionist background highlighted to me some more examples of the imbalance and others have done the same.

For that reason I welcomed the opportunities of the past week and next week.  However there is need for a comprehensive review by the BBC and others of how they select their contributors and commentators, not just as regards political balance but other balances as well.

If we are to build a shared and better future in Northern Ireland, then the broadcast media have a role to play and this is an issue they need to address.

It is something I plan to return to in the Belfast Telegraph next week.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Confidence and contentment

I would like to thank all those who helped in my election campaign in North Belfast and the 4,056 people who gave me their first preference votes.

I was first elected to Belfast City Council in 1989 and then to the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2003, so that is almost 28 years of service as a councillor and then MLA.

Even before I was elected in 1989 I had been involved as an activist for many years, so political, community and cultural activism have been a significant part of my life, alongside home and Christian faith.

So as well as thanking election workers and voters I want to thank my wife Mary who has been so tolerant of the many demands on my time and energies.  We were married in 1974 and she has a wonderful wife for the past forty-three years.

Quite a number of people of people have asked me how I feel about the election results and I have to say that I am disappointed at the overall result.  It was a very black day for Ulster and for many things that I hold dear.  However today is not the day for political analysis.  Instead I want to make this a very personal post.

Ever since Thursday two Bible verses has been very much in my mind and reflect how I view it at a personal level.

The first verse is Romans 8:28 - all things work together for good to them that love God.  That is a wonderful promise from a Sovereign God.  We may not understand the how or the why of things at the time but we can rest on that promise.

The second verse is Philippians 4:11 - I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.

I am therefore reflecting on what doors of opportunity there are ahead and I believe there are ways in which I can advance the causes that remain near and dear to my heart.