A Nation once again? – Part 3 lessons from abroad

October 22nd, 2018

In the final of three articles Alanbrooke looks at Irish affairs

There are numerous examples of states being put together in modern times.  The closest and probably most studied is Germany. It is almost at 30 years since the wall came down so there is quite a period to look at. The situation is also not that dissimilar to Ireland  – a larger more prosperous neighbour takes over its sizeable but smaller struggling neighbour.  How has Germany fared?

Unity is claimed  to have cost Germany something in the region of € 2 trillion. Much of that was spent on upgrading eastern infrastructure but a not insignificant amount was needed to pay for unemployment subsidies and social welfare as the economy adjusted. It’s hard not to see Northern Ireland needing a comparable level of support. 

Overall unity has been a success for Germany, though the benefits have flowed largely to the west rather than the east. The east despite heavy investment has seen its towns empty, its young people move west and a consequent drop in population. While unity has worked for Germany arguably this is less so for the east.

This divergence is showing up in the German political arena. The east now votes very differently to the west and backs more extreme parties in the AfD and Die Linke who currently account for nearly 50% of votes in the former DDR.

In an Irish context Ulster already starts from voting for extremes and if Germany is a pattern the extremes are more likely to consolidate their support.  Ireland as a whole would need to learn to live with views, and eventually governments , people in South Dublin would find abhorrent. 

Indeed one of the constants for countries stitched  together is they carry their scars. The USA is still digesting the legacy of the confederacy, Italy its North and South and the Irish Republic itself lives with politics from 1921.

The German model shows us  unity is expensive, you have to live with scars which will change the politics of country and while it can be successful it may not be successful for everyone. Behind the early optimism came a period when reality sunk in. 

The problems were more entrenched than people thought,  all those new voters had been sold a dream, and 50 years of living apart meant big gaps in a shared history. Germans overall think unity has been a good thing, but they are not without reservations on how it has played out.

Ultimately for  the RoI unity will be a heart  versus mind  matter.  Unfortunately for now while the heart is pulling the strings the mind appears to be sitting this round out. Varadkar and Coveney have been disasters for Irish relations with the British communities.

The hard work of Mary MacAleese and Enda Kenny to normalise relations with the UK has been put in to reverse gear. I struggle to see how winding up unionists you hope will be a sixth of your electorate makes much sense. Equally there has been little preparation of the Southern electorate for what they are being asked to take on economically, culturally or politically and the impact that will have on their daily life. 

It’s too early to say if Unity would work for Ireland, but  one thing is certain without adequate preparation it is a major risk for an otherwise comfortable, prosperous state. If the optimists are right they can learn from Germany and make it a success – but even Germany accepts it still has major problems. 

If the optimists are wrong the  model won’t be Germany but Italy where 150 years after the euphoria  of unification the prosperous regions wonder why the ever took on their curious countrymen in the Mezzogiorno with its alien customs, violence and shifty politicians.  Belfast, twinned with Leipzig  or Palermo ?


Alanbrooke is a longstanding poster on PB as well as a Northern Irishman.


A Nation once again?  Part 2 – Culture and politics

October 21st, 2018

In the second of three articles Alanbrooke looks at Irish affairs

In the previous article I looked at economics which is quite a hurdle. This article looks at the longer term issue of the impact of putting two sets of people  together. In Ulster the past always lies ahead of us,  so somewhere along the line somebody needs to be squaring circles. The North, trapped in its history and with a victim mentality, somehow needs to fit in to a fast modernising, liberal state which increasingly wants to leave the past behind.

A culture shock is unavoidable – in both directions

The North and South of Ireland are different in approach . Ulster culture is more like lowland scots irrespective of which religion. Ulster people are brusque, to the point and obstinate (with apologies to readers in Ayrshire). 

A northerner can make asking for a cup of tea sound like a threat without realising it. Unsurprisingly the Nordies often grate with their neighbours much like say the Scots with the English and that’s before we get to the historical baggage.

For unionists it’s the ongoing suspicion of nationalist intent. In the Irish Republic the protestant population has crashed by 60% and dwindled from 10% of the population at independence to 4 % now. A civil war and De Valera’s ardently catholic and Gaelic policies didn’t help improve the unionist view. The RoI’s record on its minority doesn’t look great from up North and as they say just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

For nationalists there lurks a recurrent niggle that the Republic abandoned them, that the South did live up to the ideals of 1916. Likewise there is a recognition that some aspects of the UK are superior to RoI, the NHS being top of  the list and that would be unlikely to survive in its current format.

For both communities there lurks the prospect of perceived second class citizenship. Once the dust has died down how does the North come to terms with no longer running (or not) its own affairs? How will  Belfast fare against the all-pervading presence of Dublin a city which has a bigger impact on its hinterland than London does to the UK or Paris to France? And then of course there are the day to day issues of parades, flags, the annually scheduled riots the whole headbanging  nonsense.

The Republic is not going to be too worried about Northern sensitivities, they’re too busy making money. There is already a degree of healthy scepticism about the North and that may just get bigger. Southerners look at the North and can’t understand why they don’t want to get richer. 

If you want some fun type “protestant work ethic” in to an Irish blog, you’ll think you’re in a Surrey golf club. The British government’s overindulgence of NI petulance will disappear and I don’t think any community in the North is ready for this, nor the Irish for the political pushback.

Politics will change  drastically

The politics of a New Ireland would be fundamentally different from the old.  For a start off the electorate has just grown by 40% and they are an awkward lot. The Irish STV system encourages communities to vote as blocks for maximum representation. So it’s fairly likely the unionists will all end up voting for a single party which would have about 15% of the seats.

The injection of Northern votes will also propel  Sinn Fein past Fianna Fail, at which point the old civil war party divisions look even more irrelevant. What is the point to two conservative pro-business parties when the opposition are now left wing populists?

How the electoral arithmetic will work out is hard to say, but it’s likely that at some point in the future either Sinn Fein could be the government or the successors to the DUP could hold the balance of power. At this point the North will take its pound of flesh.

Politically the Republic will be in for a shock to the system.  How this will play out is anyone’s guess.  In an ideal world all would get on together and start making themselves better off. But they should be doing that today and they’re not.  Suffice to note the British population in Ulster who are about 2% of the UK have been a perennial thorn in the side to the British government.

The Republic will be taking on a 40% thorn and this will change the nature of the state materially. Unity will put together two peoples who have big holes in their common history and in some cases have diametrically opposed views. The Republic inevitably will become a bit more like the North with all its consequences.

I often say the NI conflict is the Scots versus the Irish but they’ve both agreed to blame the English. Maybe in the distant future a British PM and a Taoiseach will be sitting in a bar somewhere consoling each other on how hard it is to handle their Scots.


Alanbrooke is a longstanding poster on PB as well as a Northern Irishman.


A Nation once again ? – Part 1  The economics

October 21st, 2018

In the first of three articles Alanbrooke looks at Irish affairs

The fallout from the Brexit vote has led to  more interest in the future of Northern Ireland than is usual. In particular the issue of a one state Ireland has bubbled back to the top of the political discussion with, as ever, strong views on either side

The modern Irish state is not the Ireland of old; it is a successful, self-confident country which has worked its way to overtake its European peers in the prosperity league – its larger neighbour included.  Likewise within Northern Ireland demographic shifts should set the scene for a unity vote, all seems lined up to removing the border. This article doesn’t seek to debate the pros and cons but rather to look at what are the practical issues facing a United Ireland. 

Northern Ireland is an economic basket case.

This is hardly a shock.  It has been the case since local industry was destroyed in the 1970s campaign of violence and investors scared off.  The net result has been the UK government has stepped in to fill the economic void both by transferring jobs to Ulster and outright subsidy. This support amounts to almost 30% of NI income. That’s huge. To put this in context the UK has squealed at projections that Brexit will cost 6% of GDP over 15 years.  Ireland faces an actual 5 times that and  overnight , unless there is an agreement on how to pick up the tab. 

Suggestions on how this gap should be dealt have ranged from – the UK should continue to  pay all the subsidies, The EU should pay the subsidies, Ireland will grow its way out of it. While these are all brave suggestions, personally I can’t see them working. Likewise I fail to see NI citizens accepting a one third drop in their income that willingly. Of all the things in the in tray this is the biggest.

The Republic’s economy is not strong enough

The Celtic Tiger has returned with growth rates of over 8% being clocked this year.  The Irish formula is based on attracting overseas investment in pharmaceuticals, IT, financial services and tax sheltering; these in turn drive the construction sector.

The headlines hide an underlying weakness.  Most of the wealth driving activities are dependent on foreign – usually US – corporations.  US corporations make up 14 of Ireland’s top 20 companies by turnover,  pay 80% of business taxes and create most of the country’s value added. These are not Irish businesses.  By itself hosting footloose multinationals can be a challenge but add in a grumpy “bring our jobs home” POTUS who is dishing out corporate tax breaks and the challenge goes up a notch. Move any of the core sectors from Ireland and the country faces a fiscal shock. As the song goes, nothing good going to ever last forever.

For all the progress the Republic’s economy is just not big enough or wide enough to absorb the shock of taking on Northern Ireland at one go. The UK with 64 million people grumbles about the £10bn cost of 1.9 million people across the Irish Sea. The Republic with 4.7 million people could well be staring at a wealth endangering black hole requiring something like a 11% hit to its voters wealth.  And don’t forget  after 50 years of handouts no-one in the North does gratitude, we do “rights”.

Short term the numbers are a big headache. The Republic hasn’t got the ability to comfortably take on the North without some major assistance.  The EU might help but budget rules would have to be relaxed to an eyebrow raising degree. The US under Trump I can’t see doing much he’ll want his taxes back from Ireland not the other way around. Voters either side of the border  won’t want to pay tax rises. The UK no doubt would pay its legacy bills but why should it pay  more it will be on for a dividend? So if you see a bus with £10 billion for the NHS painted on the sides its driver is John McDonnell.


Alanbrooke is a longstanding poster on PB as well as a Northern Irishman.


Whatever the numbers today’s march will reinforce both CON and LAB anti-Brexit MPs

October 20th, 2018

This’ll ratchet up the pressure for a “People’s vote”

Inevitably there are massively different estimates of how many people have been marching in London today against Brexit but judging by the TV pictures it does seem to be very large. Whether it’s up to the anti Iraq war demonstrations of 2003 I don’t know but it’s still pretty substantial.

The organisers are lucky that it is commanding a lot of attention by the media and the pro-Brexiteers who have been interviewed for “balance” are simply showing the huge gulf in British society that exists and will continue for years whatever happens on March 29th.

Unlike the Iraq War fifteen years ago, when Tony Blair could rely for votes on both most LAB MPs and a large number of CON ones, Mrs. May’s position is far more precarious and there are some huge parliamentary hurdles in the days and weeks ahead.

    In a sense this also reinforces Mrs. May’s position which is to honour the result of the referendum but do it in a way that causes as little damage to the economy as possible. The description, BINO, Brexit in Name Only, is effectively what might end up with.

Tory Brexiteers are split between the hardliners and those like Michael Gove who see just getting out of the EU on whatever terms as being the right strategy. From that point on the shape of what it mean can be formed.

Anti-Brexiteers are split between those who want to go for another vote and those ready to accept BINO.

The LAB leadership just wants to use the situation for a general election and notably the man who goes on many demos, Corbyn, isn’t there today.

So the next six months could see BINO, a postponement of Article 50, a decision on a new referendum or Britain leaving without a deal. It could also see a new general election and a new CON leader.

Mike Smithson


Corbyn’s gift to the Tories and Mrs May – his boycott of the House of Lords

October 20th, 2018

The balance in the Upper House has silently trended towards the blues

Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t like the House of Lords and as with many things he doesn’t like, he’s gone out of his way to avoid engaging with it. When he was first running for the Labour leadership, he promised that he wouldn’t nominate any new Labour peers. That was understandable for someone who has long opposed the nature of the undemocratic upper House, and for someone who’s always believed in the power of the boycott.

Three years on, he’s not quite kept to that promise. Three new Labour peers have been created since the beginning of 2016 (this is a better starting point than September 2015, when Corbyn was actually elected, as the post-2015GE peers were still being created through the autumn). A fourth, Martha Osamor – race equality campaigner, mother of Shadow cabinet member Kate Osamor, and defender of various Labour members accused of antisemitism – has been nominated but hasn’t yet received her title.

Boycotts, however, have a habit of being self-defeating (especially when only partially carried out, where they lose their moral weight too). Against the three new Labour peers to have entered the House since the beginning of 2016, seven have retired, two lost their place for non-attendance, and sixteen have died: a total loss of 25 Labour members leaving the party down by a net 22, or more than 10% of its strength.

By contrast, while the Conservatives have lost about the same number, 24 new Tory peers have been created on Theresa May’s watch (some of these may be Cameron’s resignation honours; I’ve not checked that closely – the effect and numbers are more important that who proposed them). Add in another one from 2016 before Cameron resigned, plus two other hereditaries elected in by-elections, and the Tories’ numbers in the Lords are up by a net 3 over the same period.

That slight increase also has to be set against a shrinking House elsewhere. Not a single new Lib Dem peer has been created since the beginning of 2016, leaving the Yellows down a net 7 in that time (though we should note that eleven Lib Dem peers were sent up to the Lords in October 2015). Crossbench numbers are also down with a net change of -20 (14 in and some 34 leaving, over half of them making use of the new retirement facility).

    What all this means is that Corbyn has chosen to put the government in a better position in the Lords by about 15-20 seats than it would have had, had he pressed for and made use of something much closer to a pro rata entitlement.

    Add in the changes elsewhere and the government is probably 30 seats or so better off against the other parties in net terms than it was nearly three years ago.

Of course, the Lords isn’t the Commons. Even after those changes, the Tories still have nothing like a majority, with fewer than a third of the members: 249 out of 791. All the same, if Corbyn continues his near-boycott and if the Lib Dems’ numbers continue to decline in the light of their last two election results (they currently have 17% of party-affiliated peers: more than double their vote shares in 2015 or 2017), then it won’t be long before the Conservatives do have more than half the members who take a whip. At the moment, against the Tories’ 249, there are exactly 300 from other parties (including four from the DUP), plus 215 cross-benchers or unaffiliated.

In terms of critical votes, the Lords isn’t that important. It cannot make or break governments. It cannot veto Budgets. It cannot reverse Brexit. What it can do, however, is substantially alter legislation against a government’s will – and do so in a way that can often be difficult to reverse. By refusing to taint himself with the brush of ermine (except when convenient), Corbyn will undoubtedly hand the government victories in the Lords it wouldn’t have otherwise had.

I wonder though whether he or his advisors are playing a longer game. We know that Corbyn and those around him want an early election, which is possible but unlikely. If it’s later – particularly, if it’s in 2022 – then the attrition of retirement and the great Returning Officer in the sky will likely deplete Labour’s numbers much further. Were they to then win, they’d find themselves heavily outnumbered in a hostile upper House. Never mind that it was their own (in)actions that led to that, it’d still provide a pretext to flood it with True Believers, or to reform it into an elected body (though that’s something that’s always a lot more attractive in opposition than in government), or to abolish it outright.

Before then though, the Tory PMs will find life a little easier up the corridor than they’ve a right to expect. Given the many challenges of the coming months and years, that might only be a slim silver lining – but in an otherwise dull lead sky, any sparkle will be welcomed.

David Herdson


NEW PB / Polling Matters podcast: Will May reach and deal and can she get it through parliament if she does?

October 19th, 2018

This week’s PB / Polling Matters podcast is split into two parts:

In part one, Keiran Pedley is joined by Peter McLeod (Vice President at pollster GQR) to explore what the public think of “Chequers” and what they expect from any Brexit deal May brings back. It turns out that Chequers is more popular than you might think in the right context – but is that the context the Prime Minister’s eventual deal will ultimately be seen in? Keiran and Peter discuss.

In part two, Keiran is joined by co-host Leo Barasi to discuss how May gets a deal through parliament, if indeed she reaches one. Keiran explains why he is much less positive than he once was and Leo explains why pollsters will have a big role to play in how some MPs vote.

You can listen to the show here:

Follow this week’s guests


It looks as though third favourite, Bernie, will struggle to get into the 2020 White House race

October 19th, 2018

Even though the next US presidential election is more than two years away potential contenders, particularly on the Democratic side, are already going through the machinations of preparing for a run – first for the party nomination then for the Presidency itself.

The big surprise of the 2016 race was how successful Vermont Senator and socialist, Bernie Sanders, was in the fight for the Democratic nomination giving Hillary Clinton much harder fight than perhaps she had been expecting.

The signs are that 77 year old Bernie has been thinking of the 2020 run. Today he starts a nine-state tour on Friday with stops in Iowa, South Carolina, Nevada and California.

But the chances of him trying again have taken a big blow in the past 24 hours with one of the key figures in his 2016 effort, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, not ready to endorse him. She is expected to win a House race in New York in the midterms a fortnight on Tuesday.

One key organiser from last time is quoted as saying

“I think that if a younger candidate can pick up the mantle and have Bernie’s support, I think that would be a better option for 2020. I feel like 60 to 70 percent of former staffers are looking around for another Bernie-esque candidate this time around, even if it’s not him”.

On the Betfair exchange Sanders is currently third favourite for the nomination and fourth favourite for the presidency.

My reading of the 2020 nomination race is that beating Trump is by far and away the main priority in the choice of candidate. The party wants the White House back.

Mike Smithson


Brexit: The three key concessions

October 18th, 2018

I have been wary of writing on Brexit. The vast majority of the visitors to this site are clearly informed – and informedly clear – with respect to their opinions on the matter. However, with Mike’s indulgence, I would like to pose some questions for discussion.

The weakness of the British position now has little to do with the Parliamentary arithmetic. Indeed, as Alastair Meeks presciently wrote in July 2017, there can actually be negotiating strength in what he termed “parity of incoherence”.  But…

There’s always a catch.  On this occasion, it’s obvious.  By narrowing the eye of the needle that the negotiators need to thread, the risk that they will fail is increased.

Instead, our weakness comes partly from the asymmetric size of the two negotiating parties, but more fundamentally from the three key concessions we have already made in the process of Leaving. Each concession was driven by a perceived political need to show that the process was progressing. Was this true in each case? To take them in the reverse chronology, as each flows from the previous one:

3. Agreeing the backstop last December

It’s worth reading both key paragraphs of the Joint Report, since paragraph 50 – inserted at the request of the DUP – seems to preclude the EU’s preferred Irish Sea customs border just as clearly as paragraph 49 precludes a hard border on land.

49. The United Kingdom remains committed to protecting North-South cooperation and to its guarantee of avoiding a hard border. Any future arrangements must be compatible with these overarching requirements. The United Kingdom’s intention is to achieve these objectives through the overall EU-UK relationship. Should this not be possible, the United Kingdom will propose specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland. In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the allisland economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.

50. In the absence of agreed solutions, as set out in the previous paragraph, the United Kingdom will ensure that no new regulatory barriers develop between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, unless, consistent with the 1998 Agreement, the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly agree that distinct arrangements are appropriate for Northern Ireland. In all circumstances, the United Kingdom will continue to ensure the same unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the whole of the United Kingdom internal market.

So – why did we agree to this at the time? The original text allowed the UK Government to effectively park Northern Ireland as an issue and move on to discussing future trading arrangements. Understandably the DUP objected, since one of their main objectives in supporting Brexit was to make Northern Ireland more British and more distinct from the Republic. Paragraph 49 implied the opposite.

The pressure to sign something was clear: there was a need to show progress in the negotiations to reassure businesses and citizens (the agreement actually mostly deals with citizens’ rights). There was also a political motivation to put to bed the drama and embarrassment of the DUP’s veto four days earlier.

But fundamentally the logical and legal contortions involved in declaring that there should be no border – on the border! – mean that this issue would have rolled over whatever we did, so I don’t see that withholding this concession – even though it has been used as a very effective wedge by the EU – would really have made much difference. We need to go back a further six months.

2. The climbdown on sequencing

It’s frankly ludicrous that we are debating the above without knowing the intended nature of the future trading arrangements. To quote David Davis, as he promised the “row of the summer”:

“How on earth do you resolve the issue of the border with Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland unless you know what our general borders policy is, what the customs agreement is, what our trade agreement is?” he told ITV’s Robert Peston. “It’s wholly illogical.” (FT, May 14 2017)

Well, quite. The Northern Irish problems largely disappear if a comprehensive free-trade arrangement can be agreed, as most people still eventually expect.

So – why did we agree to this at the time? The Government climbed down on the first day of the talks (June 19). One should note that Davis’s resignation letter makes clear that he disagreed with the decision.

I think this one is largely political and relates to the then very weak position of the Prime Minister: it was only 11 days after the election and the Conservative-DUP agreement had not yet been signed. Heading straight into an impasse would have suggested the Government was unable to deliver on its key agenda item – indeed the given reason for calling the election in the first place.

But of the three concessions, this is the one where I think we would have done better to stand firmer, and where we would have stood a chance of getting a better negotiating position. Yet Michel Barnier and the EU could simply have waited us out, because we had already entered into a time-limited process three months earlier.

1. Triggering Article 50

This is the big one. We should at least be grateful that David Cameron didn’t trigger it immediately, as Jeremy Corbyn had urged. The two-year timeline of Article 50 creates its own “backstop” i.e. an exit with No Deal. That is a lose-lose proposition, though the losses are heavier on our side which makes it difficult for us credibly to commit to it in negotiations.

Article 50 was written by the EU to favour the EU, and that is exactly how it has worked. It arguably creates a significant imbalance in the parties’ rights and obligations, contrary to the requirements of good faith. In another context, that would be seen as an unfair contract term. Good luck asking the ECJ to rule on that!

So – why did we agree to this at the time? Would it have been possible to seek to leave via treaty, or at the very least to get some commitments before triggering? The EU were very clear that there would be “no negotiation before notification”. If they had been determined to stick to this line, in private as well as public, we could perhaps have made a nuisance of ourselves with respect to budgets and anything that required unanimity. This would have been the Maggie-at-Fontainebleau approach and it might have worked, though it would also have risked undermining the trust required to later negotiate.

Regardless, was refusing to trigger Article 50 really viable, especially for a Prime Minister who had voted Remain? Whatever the negotiating merits of seeking an alternative approach, only by triggering it could she ensure we eventually left. Leavers would, not unreasonably, have feared that not triggering it was instead a precursor to a revised deal which kept us in the European Union.

What do you think?

Were any of these concessions avoidable? Or was the structural difficulty of leaving such that anyone seeking to do so would have to give a lot of ground?

Really – and perhaps this should have been the “fourth concession” – you have to go back to the signing of the Treaty of Lisbon in the first place, though as far as I can see Article 50 was not discussed much at the time. It would certainly have been a good idea for us to have had a referendum on that.

Aaron Bell

Aaron works in the betting industry and is a long-standing contributor to politicalbetting.com, posting under the username Tissue_Price. He stood for the Conservatives in Don Valley at the General Election last year.