Thursday, 20 October 2011

In or Out? Is that the question?

Some questions seem to never go away.

 The Commons will debate on Monday about whether to provide for a referendum on UK membership of the EU. The motion looks set to fail. but that this matter is up for debate at all is a concern.
 Earlier this year we had a referendum on changing the voting system of this country's sovereign Parliament. This was an important change to our (mostly) unwritten constitution. And as such it was wholly right and proper that a referendum should be held. But the European question is of a different ilk entirely.

 I was too young to vote in the last European referendum, but all my political life has been plagued by demands for this to be tested again and again and again. As such my gut reaction is "that old chestnut again". But after a little thought, my mind turns to the reasons for it's return. Firstly the referendum in 1976 has never been fully accepted by the Eurosceptics among us. Secondly the idea of challenging our political leaders by referring to the people over their heads has gained increased currency in recent years.

 In response to the first point the denial of political reality is disturbing but acceptable. We live in a democracy and although I believe them misguided it is their right to question the result. And campaign against it. And it has to be said they remain a minority even in the Sovereign Parliament. Successive elections have failed to increase their numbers to the point where they have ever had a chance of winning the day.

 However the latter issue is more worrying. It insidiously chips at the roots of our representational democracy. In an age of falling polls it is more important to make political institutions more relevant, not less. Besides which the referendum is a very blunt instrument, and less likely to promote involvement. A report by the Electoral Commission for Northern Ireland today suggested that turnout in the referendum was boosted here by the combination with the NI Assembly elections:

 " It is likely that turnout at the local elections and the referendum was boosted by holding both on the same day as the Assembly election. Twentythree per cent of voters surveyed in our public opinion research indicated they would not have voted in the referendum if there had not been an election on the same day."

Referenda have their place, and constitutional issues such as voting systems and even yes ceding permanent power to others are valid issues for them. but they must not be overused to used because we are unhappy with the direction of political travel.

Questions must be posed - what is the proposed change? How does it affect our current constitutional position? - In the case of this referendum, the answer is unclear, and hence the call for a referendum should fail. This does not rule out forever a referendum. Just makes it a question to be decided when we know what is actually happening- when there are concrete proposals on the table that materially change our national status.

Both Ed Miliband and David Cameron have been criticised  for imposing whips on the issue. No- they are both right in this case. The case for a referendum has not been made. and claiming that they are setting themselves against untested public opinion is damaging not to them personally but to all that the Eurosceptics claim to defend.

It is undeniable that much has changed since the '76 referendum. but all of these changes have been considered by successive Parliaments, and decisions taken. These are battles already lost or won, depending on your point of view- not sufficient reason for a referendum now.

I haven't touched on the economic considerations since I haven't needed to - the case against a referendum is won even before the question of cost comes into it. But I will close with one last point. For all the bureaucratic bungles and idiocies that have come from Europe, the UK has profited from it's membership and in regions such as Northern Ireland from the monies that would otherwise be unavailable.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Looking "South"

Turning away from UK Politics for a moment, it is interesting to take a look at a very lively contest taking place in the Republic of Ireland. With 7 candidates, this is the biggest field in a Presidential election in the history of the current republic.

For UK readers and others not familiar with the election here is the wikipedia page about this election.

There are 3 issues that have made me decide to post on this.

1) Sinn Fein have for the first time decided to run their own candidate - in the person of Martin McGuinness. They have this right under the constitution and their selection of a Northerner is not in question - indeed former SDLP man Austin Currie(1990 Fine Gael candidate) and current President Mary McAleese both come from this part of the island. However I am concerned when he and his party try to rule out legitimate lines of debate about his past and his role within the IRA and the wider movement.Especially when they are at the same time making such a big thing about his part in the Peace process. As the Americans would say this is politics 101. Mcguinness has to answer these questions, and if he doesn't then the people of Ireland are right to ask if he has something to hide. If you don't answer when asked nicely, don't be surpised or offended if the questions and encounters get tougher. They should and will.

2) Dana made a statement at the end of the third TV debate on RTE's Primetime programme last Wednesday, about allegations that had not yet been made public. The allegations duly surfaced on Friday morning which involved a close family member, who is also a lead member of her election team. He was accused in an Iowa court, during an unrelated legal dispute, of having abused her niece over a period of 10 years. She threatened legal proceedings over the story. Thanks to her comments the niece in question has now set in process her own legal remedies . It has to be said that this is a real family mess, which ill betides a candidate who has placed such a heavy emphasis on family values. However the niece is the real victim here. And Dana has indeed just made the story bigger and longer lasting.She is not the victim whom the knife has been plunged in but rather the person who has twisted the knife in herself... and in her niece.

3) The Labour Party Candidate is Michael D Higgins. At 70 he is the oldest in the race, but not by much( David Norris an independent outsider is only 3 years behind him). However this has not stopped the age card being played against him. It is bad enough that the constitution bars people younger than 35 from seeking nomination, but now we have an invisible glass ceiling in some people's minds. Eamonn De Valera was 75 when first elected to the Office of President and 90 when he finally left office. The office of President is one essentially of "Parent of the Nation". They do not usually intervene but are there to do so when needed. In this case age should not be an objection, but lack of wisdom should be.

As a resident in Northern Ireland I do not have a vote for the next president, but if I did I know where it would go... to a man who has shown a wealth of wisdom in the political world and elewhere.... Michael D Higgins.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Oh, What a Week!

Well, well, well.

What a week it has been and not over yet!

Let's start with the cat. big faux pas all round! May for using a story that wasn't accurate and Clarke for picking a fight about it. But my main concern is about our Home Secretary. Ok, her aide assured her it was true and would stand up to fact checks (it didn't). Now would most people leave it at that? I think if I was in her shoes (which wouldn't fit me BTW), I would have wanted a copy of the judgement shown to me so I could be sure of what I was going to say to the Party Conference and live on TV. The story was just too good to be true.

However the more important aspect of the story is this. The Human Rights Act. Does it need reviewed? Probably yes, in the sense that we should keep all legislation under review and make sure it is working in a fair and just way. Should we change it just because a few cases resulting out of it don't go the way we want? no.

Human Rights are something we tinker with at a huge cost. In the debate on Question Time one of the audience mentioned capital punishment. Her argument was that the few cases of innocent people being found guilty outweighs the benefit to society by removing permanently the guilty. Tell that to the family of Tim Evans. Tell that to .... I could go on, but it would just be a list of names. And in the week when Amanda Knox had her conviction overturned in Italy, it seems poor taste.

I've heard it said that individual cases make poor law. Most of the time this is true, and Human Rights is definitely one. So I'll put this very simply. Our laws exist to protect the innocent - some laws define crimes, and some laws govern what we can do about them. The Human Rights Act is there for a reason. Remember Pastor Martin Niemoller.

Then we had a new piece of Quantatitive Easing. In 2009 this was the "last resort of desperate governments", but in 2011, is a "positive move for the economy". Ok we can all bandy quotes, but the crucial question is this. In 2009 Alistair Darling started this ball rolling in conjunction with measures design to encourage growth. What has Goerge got up his sleeve for us? I don't think I hold my breath. I might just pass out.

One last question for Lib-Dems and Tories. We've heard a lot about the "mess" left by Labour. It's been a year and a half.and the mess is just getting deeper. Don't you think it is time to stop just rubbishing us? How long do you plan on using the "it wasn't me guv" card?