Are you happy with the way we do politics here? Do you feel well represented by our current political establishment? I’m frustrated at both of our biggest parties. The fact that they can’t sit down and get to work has hurt all sorts of people, from the survivors of historical institutional abuse who are dying waiting for compensation, to communities in Fermanagh who need all the support they can get to protect their home from the imminent return of the frackers. The disappointing thing is that the DUP and Sinn Féin have both failed us.
Let’s take the DUP first. They are the largest party in Northern Ireland, but people unfamiliar with the numbers often overestimate their support. In the most recent Assembly election, less than 3 in 10 voters gave them their first preference. Even in the 2017 Westminster election which handed them the balance of power in London, it was the distortions of First Past the Post that delivered them 10 of our 18 seats with just 36% of the vote. Their power may be overinflated, but nonetheless they are still larger than any other party here.
If there is ever a united Ireland, you can thank the DUP for it. I’m not saying this because I want this to happen – personally, I would be comfortable with any constitutional future that delivers social, economic, and environmental justice. That could be possible in either the UK or a united Ireland. But, love them or hate them, it is clear that the DUP consider themselves to be defenders of the union. Yet they threaten the union in numerous ways. Most obviously there is Brexit – the harder the Brexit, the harder people in Remain-voting Northern Ireland think about whether they are being well-served by the current constitutional arrangements. But in the medium-to-long-term, there are two other ways the DUP are eroding support for the union.
Firstly, they go out election after election and tell anyone who will listen that they are the only unionist party that can be the largest party, and you wouldn’t want themuns being the biggest party now, would you? They hammer home the message that to be a unionist is to vote for the DUP. And they are successful – plenty of people can’t stand the DUP but vote for them anyway, out of fear of letting “the other side” win. And so the DUP are slowly advancing to a position where they are the only sizeable unionist party. But the DUP take that trust and go to Sri Lanka with it. Or think of Cash for Ash. NAMA. Red Sky. Sooner or later, there will come a day when the lid will boil off, and voters just won’t be motivated to turn up and support someone who feels a sense of entitlement to both their votes and their money.
Secondly, the DUP have a huge choice ahead. There are two things preciously vital to them, and unless they choose one to defend they may lose both. The choice is this: they could be the party of British values such as multiculturalism and British civil liberties like equal civil marriage, or they can choose to be the party of a social conservatism that looks increasingly un-British. If they define the union as a place where all people are truly respected and cherished, then they have a chance of winning a new generation of young voters. But on the other hand, if this union means allowing you to be treated unfairly because of who you are, then why do the DUP expect voters to keep on supporting that union? Above all, DUP refusal to deliver the St Andrew’s promise of an Irish language act is halting a return to work at Stormont. All Irish language activists want is legislation to make Northern Ireland as British as Swansea when it comes to language rights. How hard is that?
It’s true that that Boris Johnson wouldn’t be in power right now if DUP MPs didn’t allow it; it’s also true that Boris Johnson wouldn’t be in power right now if Sinn Féin MPs didn’t allow it. The DUP have shown the power that a small party can have, and by not representing their constituents in Westminster Sinn Féin are allowing their concerns to go unheard. Before Sinn Féin tell you that they have a mandate not to take their seats, let me just remind you that in 4 out of the 7 constituencies where they have an MP, a majority of voters voted for parties that would take their seat. The only thing stopping those voters from being represented is the First Past the Post system that allows parties to win absolute power with a minority of the vote.
Even if they won’t take up their seats to solve the problem, Sinn Féin’s central argument is that we’re deeply in trouble because of problems thrown up by a referendum on membership of the European Union, which wasn’t properly thought through, where national pride overruled proper debate, and which passed with a narrow majority. In my opinion they are completely correct to point out that the cheerleaders of Brexit had clearly not thought out in advance exactly what they wanted the country to look like, how they were going to do it, and how they were going to heal bitter divisions from those who disagreed fundamentally with the choice the people made. The Sinn Féin solution to that is… to have a referendum on membership of a different union which hasn’t been properly planned in advance, where they haven’t properly thought through what it would look like, would likely only pass with a narrow majority, and with no plan on how to heal bitter divisions from those who disagree fundamentally with the choice. Good idea?
Ultimately, like the DUP, Sinn Féin also need to make a big choice. They can be the party of a narrow nationalism that seeks a united Ireland with a 51% vote and forces everyone into a uniform culture, or they can be the party that actually tries to unite the people of Ireland. If a united Ireland doesn’t guarantee parity of esteem for Britishness, the map may be united but the people won’t be. If you are told that in this new united Ireland you will be considered a foreigner in the place where you have grown up and lived all your life, why would exactly you vote for it? I think that’s what Sinn Féin have not yet understood – to really build a united Ireland, they need show that it would truly embrace and celebrate the cultures of the people of this island, with at a minimum all the protections any modern European state with a significant national minority would have. So they also face a big choice – whether to prioritise “England Get Out of Ireland” banners, or a multicultural united Ireland.
But despite their differences, the big two can unite if you give them the right issue. If any issue needs a united response, perhaps the breakdown of our climate? Increasingly, our scientists and our children are telling us that we need to cut our pollution now. Flying is disproportionately polluting, so tackling aviation is as good a place as any to start. The figures are staggering. One seat on a return flight to Australia emits more greenhouse gases than an average citizen of Mali does in their entire lifetime. (See calculations below*)
Each passenger on a return flight from Belfast to Orlando melts around 7.8 square metres of Arctic ice. One reason that so many of us fly so much is that aviation gets tax breaks that no other form of transport gets, allowing it to unfairly compete with trains, buses, and even cars. For example, there is zero tax on plane fuel. How else do you think that airlines can offer the fares that they do? They simply don’t pay the same level of tax that everyone else does, and their CEOs whine endlessly about the smidgen of tax that they do pay.
Campaigns such as A Free Ride are trying to change this. Their proposal would give everyone one tax-free return flight a year, but the rate of tax would rise with every subsequent flight they take that year. This places the burden on frequent flyers, who tend to be disproportionately wealthy. Would this be enough to end flying’s share of climate breakdown? Or what other strategy should we take to reduce our aviation pollution?
Sadly, this isn’t even the discussion Sinn Féin and the DUP are having. Their plan? Cut the wee level of tax that aviation pays, so that we fly more. You read that right. We mightn’t have the money to end homelessness or fix Universal Credit, but we do have enough to take an industry already riddled with tax loopholes and give it extra cuts so that it can pollute more. The good news is that this is such a clearly backwards thing to do that, in this era of renewed climate activism, it would be easy pickings for other parties to point out how silly this policy is. The bad news is that Naomi Long, Colum Eastwood, and Robin Swann have all signed on too, joining the big two last year in writing a joint letter to Downing Street calling for Air Passenger Duty to be axed. Any disagreement? To quote their letter: “We speak as one”.
Are you sick of this? We can be better. The world has moved on since 1690, it’s moved on since 1916, it’s certainly moved on since the days when we had a healthy environment and stable climate. We have moved on, and it’s time our political establishment caught up. It’s time for 21st century politics.
Cormac Manning is studying a Master’s degree in law at Queen’s University Belfast. He has been involved in campaigns for sustainable development, a more equitable economy, and electoral and democratic reform in Belfast, Cork, and the USA. He is a member of the Green Party.
*Return trip to Australia and Malian emissions: I inputted a scheduled return flight from London Heathrow to Perth on https://www.atmosfair.de/en/offset/flight. This resulted in 11,679 kg of CO2-equivalent pollution, which allows for the fact that emissions released at higher altitudes tend to be more polluting. Mali has carbon emissions of 0.09 tonnes per capita (https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/co-emissions-per-capita). 0.09 tonnes is 90 kg. Life expectancy in Mali is 58 years (https://www.who.int/countries/mli/en/). 58 times 90 kg is 5,220 kg. This is less than the return flight to Australia.