Following his initial foray into the Assembly, the UUP’s Steve Aiken MLA established himself as one of the party’s most capable performers and, in 2017, was returned with the largest vote share of any single unionist candidate in South Antrim. Ciarán Galway sits down with the Brexit and finance spokesperson to discuss his entry into politics, economic policy and why he believes a united Ireland is unfeasible.
A Royal Navy veteran of 32 years (and a submariner for 26 of those), Steve Aiken commanded two nuclear powered submarines and served “everywhere from the Arctic to places I can’t talk about” before embedding with the American Fifth Fleet in the Middle East. By his own words, he “did a lot of the pre-planning for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan”. Regardless, the UUP MLA does not believe that there was any long-term strategic rationale behind the decision to go into Iraq.
From there, he became the head of the UK Ministry of Defence’s Global Strategic Trends Programme. “We were doing a lot of work in Whitehall at the end of the Brown-era and the beginning of the Cameron-era. The last thing I thought I would ever be involved in is politics,” he remarks. “We were completely fed up with Gordon Brown, David Cameron and the whole coterie around them.”
In 2011, after leaving the Navy, Aiken became the founding CEO of the British-Irish Chamber of Commerce. Subsequently, through the British Irish Association and various boards in areas of east-west cooperation he met the then UUP leader, Mike Nesbitt. “Mike turned to me and said, ‘Steve, politics in Northern Ireland is changing. It’s no longer about orange and green. We need people who want to see Northern Ireland work, have a good experience of the economy and know about north-south relations. We’d be delighted if you put your name forward.’ So, I did, and the rest is history,” he quips.
Aiken identifies three fundamental factors which are inhibiting the Northern Ireland economy. The first is the legacy of ‘the Troubles’ and the long-term impact of underinvestment on infrastructure and basic industry, which has had a massively adverse effect. “If you compare Northern Ireland with other regions of the UK, we should be doing much better than we are,” he maintains.
“It has good global connectivity; a good geopolitical position and it has a flexible capability in that it is connected to the UK economy. We are an hour away from the global city [of London].
“The reason why Dublin has been successful is because of FDI coming in from the US, but also because it is also an hour from the global city – London. In fact, what we in Belfast need to be, and pardon my slightly obtuse geography, is a further connection on the M4 corridor. We need to be directly linked into that powerhouse that is London.”
The second factor is disinvestment in higher education. “We are the only part of the UK that has actively disinvested in its universities and it is not just a question of tuition fees. We have a university cap on numbers which means the universities themselves cannot plan to grow out of where they are,” the UUP chief whip states.
The local universities, he suggests, have moved away from research and development and become “exam factories” rather than the driving force for the local economy.
The final factor, Aiken argues is the bloated Northern Ireland Civil Service. “We need to reduce the size of the public sector in Northern Ireland, for two reasons. The first, as we are discovering through the RHI Inquiry and from nearly every Comptroller and Auditor General’s report, is that not only is it inefficient, it’s also very ineffective. It doesn’t deliver and acts as a drag on the Northern Ireland economy.
“The other thing is, it absorbs talent. There are very many talented people within the Northern Ireland Civil Service who would be much better in the private sector, creating real jobs, real wealth and real opportunities, rather than being stuck in the public sector, not taking minutes at meetings.”
The MLA for South Antrim defines his party’s economic policy in terms of “a proper economic strategy and an industrial strategy” that invests appropriately in higher and further education as well as basic and complementary infrastructure. “We need to be investing in those to make sure that happens, but we need to do that within a context and framework in which people want Northern Ireland to succeed because, quite frankly, nobody in Dublin wants us and most people in London don’t want us.
“The only way we would be in any way attractive is to transform Northern Ireland to be a place where people want to come to work, deliver and improve the economy. Everywhere you look, there are opportunities that need to be supported.”
To achieve this, he contends, there must be political buy-in, “regardless of what people think about the so-called ‘national question’” and suggests that 30 or 40 years of political stability are required to sufficiently grow the economy.
“There are very many talented people within the Northern Ireland Civil Service who would be much better in the private sector, creating real jobs, real wealth and real opportunities, rather than being stuck in the public sector, not taking minutes at meetings.”
Regardless of the post-Brexit dynamic, Aiken believes that the relationship across the UK has changed and that more power now needs to be devolved to the regions, particularly fiscal levers. “We are a devolutionist party. We would like to see things such as regeneration powers given to the local councils, because we need to be able to put resource to power so that they can deliver for local people. But we need to do that in a coordinated fashion across the entirety of the UK. We need as many levers as possible in order to do that.”
The UUP’s Brexit position, Aiken maintains, is “very simple and always has been”. As a party, he insists, the UUP voted remain because “on balance, it was better for Northern Ireland”. Now, regardless of the solution, a priority for the party is to avoid any borders north, south, east or west and to restore an effective relationship between the UK and Ireland.
The fractious relationship as it currently exists, Aiken affirms, “has raised the spectre of antagonism in the Anglo-Irish relationship that hasn’t been there for a very long time”.
Describing the UUP’s relationship with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Tánaiste Simon Coveney as “strained” at best, he outlines: “We need to get away from the deteriorating relationship that exists between London and Dublin at the moment, because unless we can improve it, get past post-Brexit and get into a situation where we can have normal relations restored, the hope of getting Northern Ireland politics back on the line is remote.
“The problem at the moment – because this always happens with EU negotiations with everyone digging themselves into hard positions down to the last minute – is that the language that is being used, unfortunately, will be remembered long after negotiations have finished. That’s one of the things that is being forgotten about by Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney.”
Describing himself as having always been Eurosceptic, the UUP representative regards “a healthy degree of scepticism” across Europe as having “kept it on the [right] path”.
However, Brexit, he suggests, poses an existential crisis, not just for the union, but for Europe. “The reality is that the EU needs the UK as much as the UK needs the EU,” he says, before outlining the three reasons for his support for remaining within the EU.
The first, he describes as the ‘Airbus Challenge’ in terms of adhering to regulations in manufacturing and export. “[Regardless of Brexit], you are going to continue to follow the same rules and regulations anyhow, because that is how international global trade works,” he insists. Secondly, from a security aspect, Aiken remarks: “I quite like the idea of having 450 million Europeans acting as a speedbump between me and ‘the bad guys’ – in Russia, North Africa, the Middle East or wherever they happen to be.” Thirdly, he felt that Brexit would significantly polarise politics locally.
At the same time, the Brexit spokesman claims that the inclusion of a temporary backstop in the Withdrawal Agreement text, “completely undermine[s] the constitutional integrity of the UK… because it states very clearly that Northern Ireland would form part of the customs union of the EU, which is not part of the UK”. Though, he qualifies this, stating that, “the best deal possible is that we wouldn’t leave in the first place”.
United Ireland “unfeasible”
Previously, Aiken has asserted that unionism needs to “explain why a united Ireland is unfeasible”. For him, there are several key reasons in making this case. The first concerns identity and he has previously emphasised the need to avoid “the systematic ethnic cleansing of the unionist identity on this island”.
“Regardless of what happens, there are one million people on this island who consider themselves British and will always consider themselves to be so. I am British, and I am proud to be British,” he affirms.
“Under no circumstances are [we] going to be seduced. Unless we had a referendum whereby 60 or 70 per cent of that one million ever voted for it, there would ever be a degree of contentment with being part of some artificial construct.”
Elaborating, he lists the UK’s £2.6 trillion GDP, its 65 million people and “some of the best universities in the world” as factors which underpin his Britishness. “We have been a power for good in the world. We are a major global player. I like being part of a country that is generally outwardly facing and dynamic. It provides the best opportunity for everybody in Northern Ireland to be part of that,” he continues.
“My unionism is a unionism of the 21st century. I believe in women’s rights and I believe in marriage equality. I can’t say to the people of Northern Ireland, ‘it’s best being British’, unless they get all of the rights and supports that you would get anywhere else in the UK. That’s where we need to be and that’s why the DUP is holding us back.”
Alluding to the subvention, which he estimates to be between £10 billion and £15 billion per annum, Aiken makes clear that “the burden would have to lie with the Irish taxpayer if it wasn’t the British taxpayer”.
“The bottom line,” he says, “was [articulated] very clearly by Professor [John] FitzGerald when he was reporting in the Irish Times. It would lower everybody’s living standards by about 15 per cent. I think that’s conservative. It would be much worse than that.”
Good Friday Agreement
The tool with which to achieve a long-term settlement, Aiken insists, is to make the “Belfast/Good Friday Agreement work and to recognise that we need to make Northern Ireland work, not to keep on putting up questions around the so-called ‘national question’.
“Things like St Andrew’s, Haas, and everything that came after it have only muddied the waters. The intent of power-sharing and respect that was built in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement is where we need to be at.”
Referring to the UUP’s increased vote share in the 2017 Assembly election, the UUP MLA believes that “there is a very strong cohort of people out there who want to vote for the UUP or for good British and unionist values, who don’t at the minute because they are annoyed about the whole political set-up in Northern Ireland”.
Describing unionism as “a proud and broad construct that brings many people together”, he defines a key demographic for his party, as being “people who voted for the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement who have never come out to vote again. They’re the ones who need to realise that the future of Northern Ireland is in their hands”.
Overall, Aiken is optimistic and senses: “We are probably reaching a stage now where people recognise that Sinn Féin and the DUP aren’t the way ahead and polarisation gets us nowhere.”