NI European Election Debate: Same Oul Rubbish

Sunday’s BBC Politics Show had a special debate filmed at the Great Hall at QUB with all the NI European election candidates (full show available on iplayer here and extracts thanks to Pete Baker at Sluggerotoole here and here. And depressing viewing it made for too. The candidates were from the DUP, TUV, SDLP, PSF, UUP/Ulster Conservative and Unionist New Force, Alliance, and the Green Party.

After some messing about with fancy audience voting buttons where 20% claimed to have read the Lison Treaty (liars) and UUP MEP Jim Nicholson talking about cooperation in the past between himself, Paisley and Hume, it got straight down to sectarian brass tacks with Jim Allister, elected as Big Ian’s replacement for the DUP but now the leader of Traditional Unionist Voice as he opposes sharing power with the Provos. When asked if he thought that European peace funding had been wasted, he replied that it had due to fraud, and being wasted on ex-prisoners rather than real victims. He would have preferred the money to go on infrastructure. A reasonable enough point. However, he went on to say that there had been “gross discrimination” against Protestants (whom he also referred to as the majority unionist community) in the distribution of peace funding.

The real scrap that dominated the show then started when the chair asked Diane Dodds, DUP candidate and wife of Nigel Dodds, her opinion, and Allister interrupted to correct her on details. That set the tone, with each trying to talk over each other – and in her case especially everybody else. This reflects the big question of this election – how will Allister poll? If he polls well, the DUP may not top the poll for the first time ever in a European campaign. And they are terrified at the prospect, and fighting hard against Allister to try and prevent that. Allister has been fighting back too, not least in complaining about DUP MPs’ expenses, double-jobbing, and the presence of several family dynasties in the DUP, including the Dodds’. Allister will not take the seat, but a good result sets him up nicely for Westminster and Stormont elections in the years ahead, and would give the TUV added credibility. A good result for Allister might just allow the SDLP to sneak the third seat depending on transfers, though I personally doubt it. So it is the most interesting European election in years. Not that that is saying a lot.

Dodds was easily the worst quite frankly. She came across as shrill, rude, and out of her depth. She also refused to be quiet for around two minutes when she had been asked to stop talking numerous times. She attacked Allister on his expenses, at which point Bairbre De Brun jumped in with a very effective hit, saying that as he was a DUP MEP they should know how much his expenses were. Then, without a hint of irony, Dodds complained about PSF defending the TUV. Hard to think of a clearer proof of how absurd the attempt to balance the DUP-PSF domination of the Executive with the continuation of the sectarian politics that got them where they are is. On such contradictions are hopes for a new type of politics built.

De Brun performed quite well, getting her message across very effectively, and saying she was focused on continuing the work she had been doing on important issues. She also challenged the DUP and TUV to concentrate on the issues instead of squabbling. Easily the most impressive performance I’ve seen from her.

Jim Nicholson also scored against Dodds when she, in a petty snipe, accused him of double-jobbing because of his family farm, by pointing out that it was his son that was trying to eke out a living on it in difficult circumstances. Not, by the way, that I believe every farmer who gives it the poor mouth. Nicholson claimed he could was the only unionist who could top the poll due to the struggle of what he called the two DUP parties. It was a decent enough performance, and its strongest point was how Allister’s attitude had removed the unanimity among the NI MEPs that had lasted since 1979.

Alban Magennis gave a very strong performance. I’ve heard him speak a number of times, and he is a very good performer, and always strong on the issue of sectarianism. From my perspective, he is wrong in his definition of sectarianism because I think that all the big parties are guilty of sectarian politics in their very nature, but there is no doubt he believes what he says. He put it forward very clearly that his was the most pro-European party, and argued that it represented a modern social democratic vision. Certainly he is an effective campaigner, and much better than Martin Morgan, the SDLP candidate last time. It’s always surprised me that he was never made a minister in the early days of powersharing when the SDLP had more, including a junior minister, but that reflects the lack of proper planning for the future that cost the SDLP so dear in 2003 with the partially enforced mass retirement of most of its heavy hitters and subsequent loss of seats.

Ian Parsley, the Alliance candidate, had both praise and condemnation for the Lisbon Treaty, doubting in particular that it is realistic to have a united foreign policy, citing Iraq. He was good on the double jobbing issue. To be honest, he left an impression of competence, but said nothing spectacularly memorable or effective. The jibes delivered by the other candidates certainly did that. I guess I am accidentally agreeing with the stereotype that Alliance are just too nice.

Steven Agnew, clearly the most inexperienced of the candidates, of the Green Party lamented the absence of a referendum, earning a smattering of applause, and Jim Allister. He called for a referendum in the UK. Not that he actually said whether he was in favour of Lisbon or not. He presented the Greens as the new kids on the block, different, without corporate sponsorship. Unfortunately nobody brought up the behaviour of the Greens regarding finance capital in the south, for they are one and the same party.

The nature of European elections in NI is simple. They have nothing to do with Europe, even more so than in most countries. They serve as a means of measuring the relative strength of unionism and nationalism. Hence the stress on topping the poll from the DUP. Dodds was quite open about this, and her desire to top the poll, unlike the other candidates. The debate itself reflected that reality, and the fact that most of this post is about the DUP and TUV is a reflection of how alternative options and non-sectarian politics get squeezed to the margins in every aspect of life.

Who is going to be elected? Dodds, De Brun, and Nicholson is my prediction. I think Allister will do quite well, but not as well as some are predicting. The TUV will come out of it as a credible force, and he will be well placed to take a seat at Stormont, which I reckon is his main aim. I think Magennis may well get a higher vote than the SDLP got last time, but won’t come close to taking the seat. Alliance and the Greens will cancel each other out to some extent, but for both the real aim I think is to build the profile for their candidates with the next Stormont elections in mind. In short then, this election has next to nothing to do with Europe, and everything to do with the same oul sectarian shite. Having said that, there was a less confrontational tone from nationalism, whose candidates assumed the moral high ground. But as this election will show, our politics remain frozen.

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