Fred Cobain on the UUP / Tory link

Sam McBride, the political editor of the News Letter has an interesting article covering an interview with UUP Chief Whip Fred Cobain. Cobain is a trade unionist and a former member of the NI Labour Party which might sort of make him a civic unionist of a generation or more ago. In his interview, however, he suggests that the UUP should break the link with the Conservative Party unless they help change the St Andrew’s legislation to ensure that the largest party of the largest designation rather than merely the largest party forms chooses the first minister. If the Tories fail to do this Cobain argues that the UUP would be justified in entering a pact with the DUP: presumably in order to prevent a Sinn Fein first minister.

This suggestion has earned Cobain criticism from Basil McCrea (the sort of current darling of civic unionism) who accused him of “Dancing to the DUP’s tune.”

There are several layers of contradiction for all the parties in this.

The concept that parties have a designation is of course, in and of itself, pretty sectarian: we do not simply have representatives at Stormont; they are unionist, nationalist or other. As such getting away from the biggest party of the biggest designation to simply the biggest party as a mechanism of deciding the First Minister might be a move away from sectarianism. However, such is the nature of Northern Ireland’s politics that that is exactly the opposite of what will probably happen. Instead the need to maximise the chances of a unionist being first minister will almost certainly be used by the DUP to try to maximise their vote, which will of course hurt the UUP. In the case of the nationalist community it is more than likely that the same logic will pertain which will benefit Sinn Fein at the expense of the SDLP.

Hence the removal of the sectarian system by which the largest party of the largest designation chooses the First Minister will benefit those parties seen to be more hard line within their respective communities (though the difference between the UUP and DUP is of course not vast these days).

As Cobain suggests of the removal of the designation system:

“In real terms, this issue has the potential to turn every Assembly election into a sectarian head count, as it will inevitably form the crux of certain
political parties’ election campaigns.”

Cobain says that the UUP have already met the RoI government and is keen to work with the SDLP to overturn the system:

“It is vital that other parties in Northern Ireland support and actively promote a return to the system established under the Belfast Agreement for, if they do not, they too will suffer at the hands of one of the most potentially polarising elections of recent times.”

The only party to have consistently supported the UUP’s line on this matter is the TUV and Jim Allister has again pointed out (PDF file) that it was the DUP who helped make these changes for what looks extremely likely to have been political self advantage.

An SDLP spokesman said: “The SDLP has always been vigilant and never
selective about the protection of the Good Friday Agreement as it was endorsed by the people of Ireland, north and south.

“We have warned continuously about tinkering with the Agreement and we
voiced our concerns at the time when changes were made to the appointment process of a first and deputy first minister.

“It remains the SDLP position that the procedures outlined in the Good Friday Agreement remain the most appropriate method of appointment.”

If the Conservatives do support the change back to the Belfast Agreement mechanism for choosing the First Minister they will be denounced as being sectarian by Sinn Fein. The DUP may have mixed feelings as they would have the spectre of being largely to blame for a Sinn Fein First minister removed, yet would loose a significant rallying call to increase their vote at an election where they might loose at least a few seats to Tom Elliott’s UUP.

Of course what this problem really illustrates is the utterly ineffective and inefficient system of government with mandatory coalition with which we are saddled. In a voluntary coalition there would be flexibility where the parties would have to agree who was to be First Minister. That mandatory coalition system was of course originally agreed by the UUP and SDLP. As the final irony in all this: the First and Deputy First Ministers are of course in actual fact coequal.

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  • I’m personally intrigued by what might happen if Sinn Fein wins the most votes, but the DUP wins the most seats. This seems potentially likely assuming the TUV continues to perform poorly. If the TUV gets about 4 or 5% of the votes in most contituences and their votes transfer to the DUP,,,

    Legally I’m sure its seats that matter, and rightfully so, but I’m sure Sinn Fein won’t see it that way if it comes to pass.

  • joeCanuck

    Why is it that Cobain and colleagues cannot understand the main underlying fact of any negotiations? There has to be give and take (that doesn’t necessarily imply a zero sum game). Cobain et al tell us what they would take but never the slightest hint of what they would give. And if they think that there can be unilateral changes to the GFA or St.Andrew’s agreement, then they are truly living in cuckoo land.

  • fin

    mmmmh a bit of a manufactured story methinks, to say the UUP has met the Irish Govt. indicates nothing apart from them meeting.

    The big question mark is the SDLP quotes which only appear in the Newsletter, even though the SDLP website has been updated today, the quote implies that the SDLP who slammed SF for excluding a ‘National’ minister from Justice will happily exclude a ‘Nationalist’ from been FM,

    I doubt very much if anything this blogger and the UUP are trying to imply exists outside their fantasy world

  • Francis Hutcheson

    This is just a nonsense on so many levels.

    Firstly, Fred the Red should never have had anything to do with the Conservatives. He should have stood aside and allowed someone else to build a profile – the fact he didn’t shows what a paranoid mess that party is.

    Secondly, you cannot bribe the UK government, especially not with no MPs! This is a delicate situation and any movement by the Conservatives would lead to Nationalist ire. In the current security situation, that is hardly good politics.

    Thirdly, it just doesn’t matter – not only because FM and dFM are coequals, but also because the DUP will win the Assembly Election comfortably.

    Fourthly, why on earth would the UUP keep reminding the public of an irrelevance which is only going to play into the hands of its main rivals?

    There has already been an attempt to displace the UUP candidate in West Belfast (in favour of a single DUP candidate) and an obvious desire to go easy on the DUP in South Belfast.

    Essentially, the UUP is saying that it will, from now on, either become irrelevant by being taken over by the Conservatives or become irrelevant by being taken over by the DUP, all because of an issue which is irrelevant politically and irrelevant electorally.

    And we wonder why its brightest talent is getting the hell out of there…?!!

  • Seymour Major

    You are right to see contradiction from all sides.

    The Power-Sharing system is, of course, a system set up for Sectarian Politics. It was not that the UK Government wanted it to last forever. A constitution just had to be set up so that parties of the opposite designation could govern together.

    It is quite right to suggest that the largest party having the first minister’s job is moving away from the Sectarian framework but the trouble is, while you have sectarian-minded parties, they will use every trick in the book to maximise their position, if they can get away with it. Putting it another way, the sectarian constitution is set up to ensure that it does not become more sectarian.

    As for Sinn Fein’s comment, it does not lie in their mouth to criticise a change in the law as being sectarian when they benefit from, and wish to retain, a system which maintains sectarian politics.

    On the other hand, St. Andrews was negotiated with agreement by parties representing the majority of both communities. It would be wrong for the Coalition Government to take unilateral action to change the system without Sinn Fein on board at this stage.

    I totally agree that the system of mandatory coalition is inefficient but do we really want to rake over the situation leading up to the Belfast Agreement. That agreement, taken in its wider context, was a victory for peace. It did secure the principle of self determination of the Northern Irish people. Better to try and change the voters away from voting along sectarian lines. That is what will change the system back to voluntary coalition in the end.

    As for Fred Cobain, he should join the Labour Party and give non-sectarian politics a boost.

  • Anon

    The St. Andrews Agreement was clear: largest party from largest designation gets FM post. Any attempt to assert otherwise is a lie.

  • Anon

    Also I would like Turgon or any other TUV hack to point me to one single press release or public comment from a DUP representative saying “vote for us or you’ll get an SF FM”. The only people talking about this are the TUV and the UUP.

  • Turgon

    Anon,
    The St Andrews Agreement does state: “Appointment of Ministers in the Executive. An amendment would be made to the 1998 Act on appointment of Ministers in the Executive. The Nominating Officer of the largest party in the largest designation in the Assembly shall make a nomination to the Assembly Presiding Officer for the post of First Minister. The Nominating Officer of the largest party in the second largest designation in the Assembly shall similarly nominate for the post of Deputy First Minister.” (section 9)

    However the St Andrews Act states:
    section 8:16:6:

    If at any time the party which is the largest political party of the largest political designation is not the largest political party—.
    (a)any nomination to be made at that time under section 16A(4) or 16B(4) shall instead be made by the nominating officer of the largest political party; and.
    (b)any nomination to be made at that time under section 16A(5) or 16B(5) shall instead be made by the nominating officer of the largest political party of the largest political designation.

  • dennis

    what happened to fred wasnt he a tory just a few months ago?

  • Drumlins Rock

    Joe,
    HMG, currently a coalition, can and does act unilaterally anytime they want in NI, so long as they have enough MPs & Lords to force it through.

  • Drumlins Rock

    Anon, but the westminister legislation changed it, and the DUP barely let out a peep about it.

  • Where did the pressure for change come from, Turgon? Was it just another of those side deals that Durkan used to complain about?

  • John Greene

    Fred thinks this all shows him to be clever but it fact it shows him to be both stupid and a total hyprocrite.
    He stood for election on a platform at the election with the Conservatives (doubtless with a nod and a wink to his ‘own’ people) and now he thinks he can shout the odds to the Prime Minister!
    What a prat.

  • joeCanuck

    True; perhaps I should have added the caveat “..without consequences..”

  • MMX

    Another case of mixed messages. Fred is so muddled up by them he appears to have lost the plot.I suppose he is hoping the DUP will prop him up in North Belfast. These guys will do anything to cling onto power.The Cabal want to remember that ” Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.Great men are almost always bad men,even when they exercise influence and not authority.There is no greater heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”
    Cobain wants to learn that in UK terms the UUP is rapidly becoming a carbuncle on the posterior of the Prime Minister with this totally destructible course of action.Threatening people with total clout antagonises them and linking up with the DUP will take the bicuit.

  • PaddyReilly

    As far as I can tell, it is extremely likely that SF will become the largest party only at that precise moment that Nationalist becomes the largest designation, so the matter does not arise.

    There is no reason to suppose that the 2011 election will see any significant SF gains, and there will definitely be a SF loss in Lagan Valley; and the possibility of continued erosion by dissident republicans elsewhere.

    The SDLP is though in a good position to pick up a couple of seats: the closest marginal being Strangford where they lost by only 31 votes last time. Equally Alliance is favourably positioned to make gains, or at least a gain.

    So who is going to take the DUP’s 8 seat lead away from them, we might ask? Certainly not UCUNF, which one would expect to be donating seats to the DUP.

    But the way Stormont works, it is extremely easy for even the smallest of parties to win seats at the expense of the larger entities. Parties that would be total no-hopers in any other system are here nearly ineradicable. So the TUV is, in those constituencies where there are 3 DUP MLAs, in a good position to take one of them. There are, I think 6 of these. Being in a good position does not of course mean that it is going to happen.

    So the worst case scenario for the DUP is, imho, that they will end up in 2011 with exactly the same number of seats as SF, and retain the First Minister position by virtue of being from the larger designation.

  • Cobain’s primary function is to achieve and maintain group discipline within the UUP. That may need “distraction therapy”. Something similar applies to the personality politics over the First Minister: presumably any hand-up for the SDLP splits the vote and might, just might, be a slap to SF.

    Ritual exchange of insults aside, surely Cobain’s essential thesis is correct. At some future stage, the “sectarian” requirement will have to be relaxed, that a left/right/centre non-denominational alignment can emerge. In other words, NI gets the kind of politics that is recognisable across the the rest of the archipelago.

    That will be then. It certainly isn’t now.

    The change will be hastened when “issue” (rather than posturing) politics take over: for example when the Assembly has to face up to how property taxes and water charges are implemented.

    Someone needs to probe Cobain on what those contacts with Dublin involve. How much more significant was it than a quick half with a staffer in the bar at Buswells? Somehow, I doubt that Stormont (plus or minus the verboten goat, which has earned wider publicity than most recent doings in BT4) features large on the present FF/Green agenda.

  • plainly speaking

    Fred a Tory? No chance. It was one incongruous aspect of the UNCUNF project that dyed-on-the-wool socialists like Fred, if elected, would take the Tory whip in Westminster. There he would have been voting for budget cuts in the teeth of union opposition … I’d bet a Fred Cobain MP would have found lots of “prior engagements” to avoid turning up to face thew whips.

  • Wasted Ballot

    ‘St. Andrews was negotiated with agreement by parties representing the majority of both communities’

    We should have had a referendum on it because I sure as hell didn’t vote for any of the clowns that were involved in the ‘negotiations’ and don’t support most of the abominations that came from it.

  • Biggest Baddest Bobby

    This is bizarre. The issue doesn’t matter because the DUP will win the Assembly Election; and because in any case it’s a joint office.

    Yet the UUP seems intent on speaking about little else – probably because they’ve nothing else to say.

    Ultimately Fred is saying “We’re all Conservatives now but if they don’t give in on an irrelevant, technical point which would really annoy Nationalists, we’ll all be DUP instead.”

    And this is the party which accuses others of “lacking principle”… no wonder people are fleeing it.

  • Joe Bryce

    I have urged this before, and Comrade Stalin (with whom I usually agree) disagreed with me: But I’ll put it out again. IMHO, the posts of FM and DFM should rotate equally between the designations, as the Lord Mayoralty does, so far as I can see, very usefully and entirely unproblematically. We really don’t need the various unionist parties to be having a nervous breakdown if and when, as in my view is inevitable, SF become the largest party sooner or later. We will all discover, when at last there is an SF FM, that the world does not come to an end. Whatever the ultimate fate of partition, the people of the NE need to be getting on with each other, and a rotating FM / DFM will, I think, assist greatly in that modest but desirable objective.

  • MMX

    Poor 64yr old White ma el ptotestant Fred only gets 17 postimgs up until this one while Paula gets 157 ie 9.25 times more interesting.

  • In the light of that contribution, let us balance quantity against quality.