Monday, 22 December 2008

Who has been naughty and who has been nice

He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice, but who will Santa decide has been naughty or nice in the Northern Ireland Executive’s ‘beat the credit crunch package’ announced on Monday?
Unveiled was a £70million package, which included a one-off £150 fuel credit for up to 100,000 vulnerable households.

Tagged alongside were announcements on a freeze on business rates, construction projects and a scheme for building additional farm slurry tanks.

Finance Minister Nigel Dodds declared that the fuel poverty credit scheme had gone beyond the one proposed by Social Development Minister Margaret Ritchie.

Cue much name calling.

With the DUP and Sinn Féin happy with the deal announced, Ritchie declared the fuel poverty package was a ‘smash and grab’ raid on her budget.

She claimed the Executive had taken £30million from her budget and this would reduce the Housing Executive’s social housing budget. First Minister, Peter Robinson hit back with a stinging riposte.

“I would have thought she would be jumping up and down and rejoicing. Instead we hear carping and criticism,” he said.

"These are people who clearly do not understand the first thing about finance."

With the war of words still raging Santa will have a tough job deciding which of the warring parties has been naughty or nice.

Slurry words

With the announcement of the £20million Farm Nutrient Scheme to enable farmers to build slurry tanks came another war of words.

Claims were made that this was money already allocated and that the deadline for farmers to receive the money had to be completed by December 31.

There followed a brief battle which eventually saw some slackening of the deadline…and an admission that the New Year’s Eve deadline was the ending of a dispensation on nutrients set by Europe.

But, as the row heated up it emerged that the original money allocated was to come from the sale of DARD land – which owing to the collapse of property prices was no longer going to be available.

Farmers are currently scribbling out their application forms in case officials change their mind!

Len’ me a few quid….

THE dynamic duo of First Minister Peter Robinson and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness summoned bank chiefs on Wednesday to urge the four local banks to pass on interest rate cuts to their customers.

With the Bank of England slashing interest rates to first 3% and then 2% Ministers wanted the cut passed on to personal and business customers.
The Banks left the meeting to find a posse of press ready to doorstep them with a flurry of questions.

There followed a hasty explanation of the difference between base rate and the inter-bank lending rate…and how the local banks are doing their best.
And, one caller to local radio reminding all concerned that the majority of mortgages in Northern Ireland were with main land UK-based lenders….

A hero for our time?

Education Minister Cartiona Ruane managed to draw much unionist ire this week – twice.
Ms Ruane first announced the ending of the pilot Pupil Profile scheme, with parents dismissing it as vague and too politically correct. The profile was designed, long before Ms Ruane was handed the poisoned education chalice, to aid transfer to post-primary school without academic selection.

The Education Minister announced a return to old-fashioned school reports…and lo and behold a new row over academic selection boiled over.

As if this wasn’t enough for Ms Ruane, she then stepped into unionist sights when making a prize day speech at St Colm’s High School, Twinbrook. During her speech she said that the pupils should be thankful for the sacrifice of hunger striker Bobby Sands for helping pave a way to a better future for them.

Apart from the politics students picking up prizes, pupils might have wondered why their prize-giving attracted so much media attention.

Young Earth, old Earth, lottery money

After last year’s row over the Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre, the National Trust’s proposal for a centre has moved a step nearer completion with news that the plan has been short listed for a healthy cash boost from the National Lottery.

Hopes are high that the cash for this World Heritage site development will be forthcoming soon. But where will this place Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister, Arlene Foster? With members of her party determined to have a Young Earth creationist explanation on the Causeway’s creation, will the National Trust include their explanation with the geologists’ account?

Cross-party unity can only go so far

With the credit crunch temporarily set aside as X-Factor fever grabbed the nation, it emerged that the mandatory collation government of Northern Ireland can’t make real change.
Despite the backing of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, representatives of all the political parties and the media, Eoghan Quigg was defeated in the X-Factor final.

Political wrangling was shunted off the headlines as acclaim was heaped on the Dungiven teenager despite his defeat.

But it then emerged that many local callers to the Simon Cowell backed show couldn’t get through to place their vote…had the Assembly not been going into recess, a debate on the X-Factor conspiracy would have followed swiftly!

Obituary – Conor Cruise O’Brien

This week saw the passing of one of the most controversial and at times influential political figures in Ireland, Conor Cruise O’Brien, aged 91.

The ‘Cruiser’ occupied a central role in southern politics for what seemed decades, and included in his CV – membership of the Labour Party and Dáil Éireann; Minister for Posts & Telegraphs and architect of the Republic’s censorship of Sinn Féin and the Provisional IRA; hatred for Charles Haughey; and even membership of the UK Unionist Party.

He left that party after he claimed that the real defeat of violent republicanism would come about when unionists willingly entered a united Ireland.

A diplomat, critic, author, essayist, politician, minister of state, newspaper editor – the likes Conor Cruise O’Brien are few in any generation, and it may be a long time before his like is seen again.

This week saw the passing of one of the most controversial and at times influential political figures in Ireland, Conor Cruise O’Brien, aged 91.

The ‘Cruiser’ occupied a central role in southern politics for what seemed decades, and included in his CV – membership of the Labour Party and Dáil Éireann; Minister for Posts & Telegraphs and architect of the Republic’s censorship of Sinn Féin and the Provisional IRA; hatred for Charles Haughey; and even membership of the UK Unionist Party.

He left that party after he claimed that the real defeat of violent republicanism would come about when unionists willingly entered a united Ireland.

A diplomat, critic, author, essayist, politician, minister of state, newspaper editor – the likes Conor Cruise O’Brien are few in any generation, and it may be a long time before his like is seen again.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Energy price cuts wrangle

AFTER its hiatus from work, the Northern Ireland Executive has been plunging headlong into adopting a series of measures, which this week coming will see the focus shift to tackling fuel poverty.

The Executive proposals are expected to be aired during Monday’s Assembly plenary session, but SDLP leader stole some of the thunder by telling media outlets that energy prices are expected to fall by 20% for gas and 10% for electricity.

SDLP Leader Mark Durkan seemed to be trying to breathe life into the proposals submitted to the Executive by Margaret Ritchie, Social Development Minister and SDLP colleague.
It is understand that their will be an Executive statement on Monday announcing that a contribution in the region of £150 - £200 will be paid into the electricity accounts of the most vulnerable in Northern Ireland. This will cost approximately £13 million.

There are no shortage of pundits, listeners and fed-up punters across all the media outlets reminding us all that despite the cuts, prices will remain higher than this time last year…
Over the weekend expect researchers and advisers to be hastily scribbling crib notes for Monday’s debate all about ‘focussing on real issues’ and caring that something gets done. Of course the weather may much warmer when it does reach those that need help during the current cold snap…

460 education jobs to go

WITH the Review of Public Administration winding it’s merry, if slightly sluggish way in shaking off the bureaucratic clutter of governance in Northern Ireland, the latest RPA announcement was from Education Minister Catriona Ruane on the Education Skills Authority.

The proposal is to merge all five education and library boards into a single entity.

With news that up to 460 jobs may be lost, the Assembly second stage debate on the Education Bill drew the ire of trade unionists and new friends of the Tories, the Ulster Unionists.

NIPSA pledged to ‘fight the case for proper staffing levels’ while UUP MLA Basil McCrea was keen to end what he claimed was a Sinn Féin centralising agenda.

McCrea claimed the ESA would be the biggest quango in Europe. He did have a pop at his DUP fellow MLAs, saying they’d adopted a ‘soft approach’ but had had assurances no side deal had been done with Sinn Féin.

Which of course leads to all sorts of confusion when the ESA comes to look at maths: five into one goes how many times. Or five into three goes how many times? The Council for Curriculum Examinations and Assessment might start thinking about setting a new 11+…for MLAs.

Euro vote already on the horizon

UP to a few weeks ago the general population could be forgiven for thinking that Northern Ireland had no MEPs, as their profile was, well they didn’t really have one (although Jim Allister has a profile for an entirely different reason).

But come May, we’ll all be going to the polls to select Northern Ireland’s representatives in the European Parliament.

And so the jostling has begun.

Opening salvoes have been fired. Jim Nicholson will be the joint Conservative/Ulster Unionist candidate, announced officially at last week-end’s Ulster Unionist Party Conference.
And now there is a good healthy row brewing over European issues. First there is the question of succession - what should happen should your MEP quit or die mid-term.
The NIO is pushing ahead with legislation to allow the MEP’s party to pick a replacement, saving all that tedious mucking about with by-elections.

The Electoral Commission’s proposal that a list of a possible substitutes should be made available to the electorate before polling day was ‘discounted’ and Jim Allister was less than pleased.
He suggested that under the government’s plans, a party (read DUP) could field a high-profile candidate and when successful they could step aside for a junior player. And he warned that this could be open to a judicial challenge. Well he is familiar with the courts after all.

Office? What office?

WITH members of the Assembly Committee of First Minister and Deputy First Minister visiting Europe for a chinwag on how Europe’s institutions are helping Northern Ireland, they walked into a ‘storm’ of criticism over the operation of the NI Executive’s office.
Jim Nicholson said the First Minister and Deputy First Minister had failed to ‘offer any political direction’ on how Europe should be handled, while Jim Allister said the situation was worse now than it had been under Direct Rule.

Nicholson also claimed that MLAs knew little about the dealings in Europe…saying one MLA had asked a question that was three years out of date. Whoops that MLA was on the committee and he was party colleague Tom Elliott!

David Cameron and the party machine

Since the last update David Cameron has been and gone, with his ‘Messiah of the New Right’ speech at the Ulster Unionist Party conference.

Cameron, reading from prepared notes received an ovation and his appearance seems to have calmed the nerves of a few UUP MLAs who may have been wavering a little on the merger.
Although heavily trailed and consistent from the platform, the underlying message was that we’re in the ‘suck it and see’ phase.

But on the day the comparison with the normal NI party conferences and the machinery of a mainstream UK political party in action was clear as Cameron’s planned events followed a tight timescale but ‘kept’ them baying for more …breeze in, couple of media interviews, few quick pictures, speech, breeze out to the adulation of star struck youngsters and smiling not so young party members.

Not so much slick as hyper efficient…were our elected representatives of all shades taking notes?

Sports calamity - we’re all doomed!

WITH briefings this week claiming that the Maze sports stadium won’t get off the drawing board it was perhaps unfortunate timing for Gregory Campbell to announce, in his capacity as Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure, that our sports stadiums fail to live up to health and safety standards.

Soccer, gaelic and rugby stadiums were named.

While a few seized on the Maze angle, what was notably absent was comment on the potential at having stadiums that failed such high profile tests.

In recent memory the tragedies of Hillsborough, Bradford and too many others showed the failings of older stadia can have horrific consequences.

Of course, the question of who will pay for the upgrading wasn’t really dealt with. This came in the week when it was floated that a Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Republic of Ireland joint bid to host the European championships was in the offing. When one noted commentator in Scotland heard this, he was heard to say “Aye Right!” Torres and Ronaldo at Windsor Park? Only if it’s safe say they!

What’s the Bill for Rights

On the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, head honcho at the NI Human Rights Commission, Monica McWilliams, delivered the Commission’s advice to the NIO Minister, Paul Goggins.

Accepting the weight tome Goggins said he would read it (and at almost 300 pages that’s a lot of reading!) and there would be a consultation.

Comments were most vocal from unionist circles (two unionists who took part in the process stayed away from the big party) criticising the domination of NGOs in drafting the proposals.
The Bill of Rights, if passed, was intended to fill in any gaps left by the European Convention on Human Rights. Critics say the Bill of Rights could become a licence for lawyers to print money… plus ça c'est la même chose it is then!

Friday, 5 December 2008

Questions, questions, questions

Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness have asked the Assembly’s procedures committee to cut back on the questions they have to answer.

Currently, in addition to written questions, the First Minister and deputy First Minister have to appear before the Assembly twice a month to answer oral questions for half an hour.
According to press reports this week, the duo now want this reduced to a monthly appearance before the Assembly.

To take a random sample, this coming Monday 8 December, the Ministers will appear to answer 20 questions, of which they may have the chance to answer maybe two or three in the 30 minute slot they, like all Executive ministers, are allocated.

Topics range from transfer of policing and justice powers through to asylum seekers and their children.

Of course, with transatlantic trips and the weekly media interview round slotting in the 30 minutes every fortnight must be tough, but is it tougher on the civil servants who must prepare briefings for the ministerial appearances?

£2.66 per constituent

MLA’s pay is, as always a favourite topic for radio phone-ins, with pundits and public alike decrying the salaries of our public representatives.

With the Senior Salaries Review Board announcing their ‘downgrading’ of the proposed pay rise for MLAs to 3.5% it emerged that part of the thinking was that the Assembly had restricted law making powers and that the number of constituents each MLA is ‘responsible for’ is less than other parts of the UK.

In fact the board has said that MLAs earn £2.66 per constituent compared with 60p per constituent for each MP.

But, away from the punditry the issue remains that MLAs are the lowest paid of the devolved administrators, perhaps opening the door for a debate on the quality of those seeking to be MLAs.

More to the point is the question of dual mandate…how many times can one person be paid to represent a constituent?

Quick Planning approvals

Under fire, Environment Minister, Sammy Wilson brought good news to those wilting under the wait for planning approvals, in Northern Ireland’s tortuous system.
Having cleared the issue of PPS14/21 up amid a flurry of interviews and staunch ripostes Mr Wilson has now opened up a pilot scheme to cut down on waits for planning approval for non-contentious applications.

This means that the bewildering delays faced by applications for, for example, temporary school classrooms or changes to a shop front display, can now be approved on average in between 16-20 days compared to the previous average of almost three months.

The scheme operates on the simple premise that if there are no objections to an application then it does not require to be tabled at a council meeting.

Good news for householders looking to improve rather than move, but there could be a sting in the tail…it will mean councillors will have more time on their hands to have a bun-fight over contentious applications. More grief for PPS21 applicants then?

Bush and the FM/DFM

As Dubya clears his desk and prepares to vacate the Whitehouse for Barack’s January arrival, he cleared time in his increasingly free diary to meet First Minister Peter Robinson and deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness.

During their Transatlantic trip to see if they can drum up some potential investment in Northern Ireland, the pair also met New York Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, as well as several high profile city officials and Fortune 500 rich cats at a dinner of the most profitable companies in the USA.
There is no truth in the claim that when Robinson lent McGuinness a tenner he was declared the fourth biggest lender in North America…he was the sixth biggest lender.

Guns? What guns?

On Wednesday, the Westminster Government has given so-called Loyalist paramilitary groups another year to decommission their weapons, after their notable failure to do so over the past 14 years.

SDLP chief Mark Durkan rowed into the debate by saying this has to be the last chance saloon, while Junior Minister, Jeffrey Donaldson broadly agreed that the process couldn’t go on indefinitely.

Drawn into the equation were Margaret Ritchie’s funding decisions of the last year and the opinion of the Ulster Political Research Group.

The debate was somewhat undermined when the PSNI discovered viable explosive devices left by Loyalist paramilitaries near a BMX park this week.

Which goes to prove that the exchanged verbiage on Good Morning Ulster isn’t quite reaching the man in the balaclava…and exactly what sanction are Mr Durkan et al proposing if the Loyalists decline to decommission? A paramilitary wing for the Assembly?

New Tory link…where’s the New Labour link?

With David Cameron appearing at the Ulster Unionist conference to cement the electoral link with promises of potential Westminster ministerial posts, if the Tories win the next General Election, the promise of a say in reserved matters looms large in the political mindset.
This, of course, leads to the question as to the status of New Labour organising in Northern Ireland…of which there has been nary a whisper of late.

The problem seems to be there is no-one party for them to marry to. After all the SDLP is still being romanced by Fianna Fail, the DUP are too busy with dual mandates, the TUV at times seems to be crying into a right-wing wilderness, while Sinn Féin are not courting anyone unless they sign up in Irish.

That leaves the Alliance and the PUP as potential suitors for New Labour…can’t see Gordon Brown rushing into that marriage.

Education Bill Enters the Political Arena

The Education Bill is to be debated in the Assembly next week. The legislation is intended to provide for an Education and Skills Authority (ESA) which follows on from the Review of Public Administration (RPA) announced in November 2005. According to Education Minister Catriona Ruane – ‘affectionately’ known as Catriona ‘Ruin’ in DUP circles – the Department’s key priority is to streamline the administration of education and raise education standards in the ‘North’. Prior to the introduction of the Bill, debate has already been rife in political circles and indeed among the public as to what the new education system will look like post-2010.

Whatever the outcome, Chambré understands that Education Bill is set to have a lengthy committee stage, which will undoubtedly result in a significant number of amendments being proposed at consideration stage (report stage for those versed in the Westminster system).

169 days and counting

169 days and counting - this is the number of days that have gone by since the Executive has seriously considered the issue of fuel poverty.

It is estimated that fuel poverty is affecting at least 100,000 households across Northern Ireland. Given the temperatures in recent days it must be anticipated that a mixture of high energy prices and the weather will mean that many other households will be affected.
The Assembly was briefed on a very timely and valuable report by Professor Christine Liddell of the University of Ulster. In the report, which was commissioned by Save the Children, Professor Liddell writes that:

"The fuel poverty rate among families with children here is one of the highest in the developed world...Lone parent families are hardest hit."

So can our Assembly do anything about fuel poverty. For once the answer is yes.
The Minister for Social Development Margaret Ritchie has had a paper waiting to go before the Executive for several months. Elements of the paper will have direct financial benefits to the fuel poor as well as setting in place some measures to tackle the problem more widely. It was expected to be discussed at Thursday’s meeting of the Executive, however, it was not.

It looks unlikely that there will be any major announcement on this front before Christmas. Which with the usual delays could mean weeks if not months before the impact of any new measures to tackle fuel poverty is delivered on the ground.

Friday, 21 November 2008

The Invisible Breakthrough

All has become clear. It appears that the 150 day hiatus at the Assembly has not been about policing and justice at all. The DUP and Sinn Féin apparently saw the economic crisis coming and foresaw that Gordon Brown would react by going on a spending spree. They knew that the former Chancellor’s long term friend Prudence would get ditched and that the financial demands that had previously been stone walled by Brown would be granted. All the DUP and Sinn Féin had to do was to create a crisis, drag it out a bit and then present their shopping list to Brown.
Brown’s clever wheeze to fix the crisis, which has been caused by the fact that we all – government and people - have borrowed too much and spent to much, is to borrow huge amounts and to cut taxes. This is in a bid to encourage us to keep on spending. Hence Peter and Marty’s niggling £100m problem about civil servant back-pay was solved at a stroke of Gordon’s pen. And the problem of having to introduce water charges months before an election – removed in an instant with another bung.

With civil servants wondering round the shops with £100m in their back pockets and shoppers pouring over the border from the South and huge tax cuts being promised next week, retailers at least should have a good Christmas. As for next year…well let’s not worry about that now.
In return, the DUP and Sinn Féin have agreed. It is not very clear what they have agreed to – other than that they will take the money. There is a detailed list of the process by which policing and justice would be devolved but there are no dates. It appears the leaderships of both parties answered the questions about how their respective supporters would react to such a development by deciding not to tell them the detail. This method of leadership has a strong record in Northern Ireland.

As a result, the Executive meet and decided some business! The establishment of the Education and Skills Authority will probably be established but not by its original timetable. The controversial planning policy PPS 14 will be radically changed with the 1 beginning replaced by a 2 and the 4 by a 1 – doubtless the devil is in the detail. The abolition of prescription charges will undoubtedly be welcomed by the small minority of the population who actually pay them.
Irish language, Maze Stadium, academic selection? The solution to these issues appears as invisible as the deal on policing.

Overall it is believed that the DUP have blinked and there is a timetable but Sinn Féin have to live with the fact that it will not be made public.

Conservative and Unionist New Force created

The euphoria (read mild relief) of the breakthrough on the Executive had barely subsided and the cheering crowds have barely had time to return to their homes when the Conservative Party and the Ulster Unionists, in a clearly premeditated move, announced that they had concluded a deal on their joint way forward.

Both parties agreed a sweeping Memorandum of Understanding under which future MEPs and MPs elected under their banner will become full members of the Conservative Group in Brussels and the Conservative Party at Westminster.

Sir Reg Empey put the splits of the past behind him and convinced his Party Executive to vote virtually unanimously to form a new electoral force with the Conservative Party. David Cameron and the Shadow Secretary of State Owen Paterson welcomed the move.

It is unclear whether David Cameron is to attend the Ulster Unionist Conference on 6 December but at this stage it is widely anticipated that he will.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Deadlock and indifference

The political impasse continues. The public is largely long past caring about whether the Executive meets or not. Indeed one suspects that public indifference is gradually turning to irritation or outright hostility towards the local political establishment.

Peter Robinson accused Sinn Fein of ‘holding a gun’ to people’s head – metaphorically of course – by blocking meetings of the Executive. He pointed to the fact that he has cleared 30 papers and Martin McGuinness has cleared a dozen papers and could meet to discuss these. He refused to entertain the suggestion that the Executive or the parties should deal with the issue of devolved policing and justice as a number one priority.

Sinn Fein appears to hold the contrary opinion and it is increasingly difficult to see how the situation can be resolved. It appears increasingly likely that the Uk and Republic of Ireland governments will be dragged into the efforts to resolve matters – even though both governments have pressing economic matters to resolve.

Sammy Wilson, the Environment Minister, who has responsibility for local government, has flagged up the possibility that the reform of local government may be delayed if the Executive impasse situation continues. Given that not many people care about local government and because the new councils aren’t due to come into force until 2011 nobody took much notice of Mr Wilson’s warning. Perhaps more pressing is the potential delay to the Health and Social Care (Reform) Bill without this Bill the new health bodies cannot be created and without the subordinate legislation they cannot become operational. The new target date for these reforms is 1 April 2009.

The Education Minister, Caitriona Ruane, in response to attacks on her alleged lack of clarity with regard the replacement of the 11 plus system of post primary pupil transfer, alluded to the fact that she has detailed plans which she wants to bring to the Executive. In this instance, however, it is widely known that her plans will not be accepted, so many in the education sector are continuing to make preparations for their own entrance examinations.

The chances of a functioning Executive this side of Christmas appear negligible and the prospects for the New Year are not encouraging. 2009 is likely to see the introduction of a water charges element to the rates which will make the local parties exceptionally unpopular given the tough economic times we are now in. Some might argue that they would have been better to have bitten the bullet two years ago.

2008 US Presidential election – end of an era

Many superlatives will undoubtedly be trotted out to describe the momentous nature of the current US presidential election. Looking at it from a narrow Northern Ireland context it had one noticeable ‘first’. It was the first time a Democratic candidate had refused to hold a ‘caucus’ event for Irish America. Obama’s team was apparently concerned that if they did one for Irish America they would have to have an event for every ethnic group.

Such concerns have been never stopped such events in the past. Partly this reflects the fact that by and large Irish America supported Hillary Clinton rather than Obama in the primaries.

Obama, however, clearly does not feel the need to pander to Irish America. Having ‘offended’ some Irish Americans by refusing to commit to appointing a Special Envoy to Ireland Obama showed some awareness of the need to keep them ‘on side’ by appointing a seven man Advisory Panel on Ireland.

In addition to the fact that Irish American backed Clinton the decision also reflects that ‘Ireland’ as a political issue no longer has the ability to influence even Irish American voters particularly now that Northern Ireland is regarded as ‘settled’.

The main reason not to hold an event, however, is the simple fact Irish America’s special position in the political demography of the USA has largely been eclipsed by the increasing diversity of the USA and the rise of other groups such as the Hispanic community.

An exclusive Irish Voice survey of 180 Irish and Irish Americans (93 women and 87 men) from across the U.S. showed that Senators John McCain Senator Barack Obama are neck and neck for the Irish American vote.

Friday, 24 October 2008

Dancing on pin heads – sure it’s our ‘thing’

The banking system of the western world might well be teetering on the brink of collapse, shares may be plunging worldwide and we may all be facing a global recession of unknown proportions, but back in Northern Ireland the political situation appears to be regressing.
In July, Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness confirmed that they had agreed a format for the new justice ministry and asked the Assembly Review Committee to compile a report on the proposals.

The pair decided that neither the DUP nor Sinn Féin would hold the post and signalled that it would be filled through a cross-community vote of the Assembly, with speculation that the Alliance Party would emerge as an agreed candidate.

The wording of the letter said that the position would be filled in a cross community fashion ‘at all times’. The DUP claim this means in perpetuity. Sinn Féin claim it means it should be filled at all times by an Assembly member for the duration of this Assembly.

RIR parade and counter parade

The Royal Irish ‘home-coming’ parade has been moved back to avoid the Sinn Féin demonstration which has also been given permission by the Parades Commission. Eirgiri, the left wing Republican organisation has announced it is planning a demonstration too. It has not applied for permission.

Unionists attend British Irish Parliamentary Body

Unionism has been represented for the first time at a meeting of a British-Irish body formed almost 20 years ago. Ulster Unionist members Lord Maginnis and David McClarty, alongside DUP MLA Jim Wells attended an historic gathering of the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary body in Newcastle on Monday. In order to address unionist concerns, the body will now be rebranded as the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly.

We understand Lord Maginess was in attendance after a slight detour via Newcastle, Co. Down.

Lord Eames in damage limitation exercise

Following reports in the newspaper that the Eames Bradley Commission on the Past was to give limited immunity to former paramilitaries who proffered information on incidents on which they had knowledge, Lord Eames, the former head of the Church of Ireland rushed to the media to dismiss the reports. The former Archbishop of Armagh said leaks about a proposed commission to investigate the legacy of the Troubles were unhelpful.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Crisis what crisis?

A number of commentators – obviously working on the basis of briefings received from one or other party – are continuing to speculate that the whole Stormont edifice might be about to come crashing down. This seems unlikely for two reasons. Firstly, as mentioned before, given the global economic situation it is unlikely that the voters of Northern Ireland will thank any party that precipitates a November election. Secondly, neither Sinn Fein nor the DUP have been publicly preparing their supporters for an election, of course that could be done fairly rapidly, but one gets the feeling if a collapse was imminent we would see more ‘sounding off’ in public.

Indeed one straw in the wind seems to the fact that while the DUP Leader has continued to issue press releases attacking Sinn Fein, the DUP in general have reined in their attacks on Sinn Fein.

The log jam remains however. Sinn Fein wants movement on the devolution of policing and justice but also wanting an Irish Language Act, a Conflict Transformation Centre at the site of the former HMP Maze and the end of academic selection. The DUP want none of these and have the ability to prevent them.

The Secretary of State, Shaun Woodward has said that unionists must not use the issue of confidence as an excuse for not agreeing to the devolution of policing and justice and greeted the fact that the Assembly Executive and Review Committee has set a five week timetable for their discussions on devolving policing as "welcome progress".

Mr Woodward confirmed that the DUP were under no legal obligation to agree to the devolution of policing and justice. Interestingly, Mr Woodward refused to take the opportunity to rule out legislating to ‘impose’ policing and justice if there is no agreement in the coming months.

Precisely how this would work remains unclear. The government at Westminster could legislate to enforce a timetable. However, this would be opposed by the DUP. It could be the case that it would be easier for the DUP to be ‘forced’ to concede the devolution of policing and justice under threat of Stormont being suspended than to ‘agree’ to it in conjunction with Sinn Fein.

A promise of legislative action at Westminster might keep the Sinn Fein leadership content in the short term and maybe a lot of hot air about the respective parades on 2 November will keep each side’s respective supporters occupied.

The ‘downside’ of such a development for Sinn Fein would be that it would mean the end of any chance of an Irish Language Act or a Conflict Centre at the Maze. Moreover, the passage of time and the development of independent entrance exams mean that Sinn Fein has increasingly already lost out on the question of academic selection.

RIR parade and counter parade

It is surely indicative of a deteriorating political environment when Sinn Fein lodge an application to stage a counter demonstration on the same day as the Royal Irish Regiment are due to have their ‘home-coming’ parade. Last year, during the 'Chuckle Brothers’ honeymoon period such a scenario would have been avoided at all costs. A combination of Sinn Fein’s desire to keep their supporters ‘on side’ and a worry that other Republican or Left Wing groups might fill the radical/confrontational vacuum have undoubtedly spurred Sinn Fein into action.

UUP approaching decision time

The postponed Ulster Unionist Party conference has been moved to 6 December. Whether the Conservative Party Leader David Cameron addresses the conference is thought to depend on whether the two parties can reach a deal in advance of December.

Sylvia, Lady Hermon, the MP for North Down has apparently spoken out in praise of Gordon Brown and Lord Mandelson which many believe is a signal that she believes she could not face taking the Conservative Whip if the UUP and the Conservatives strike a deal.

The question now facing the Ulster Unionists is whether they are willing to risk losing their only MP in the short term in order to have the potential to help to create an electoral entity with much broader appeal and influence in the medium term.

Ulster Unionists score own goal

The Ulster Unionists have ‘form’ when it comes to ‘own goals’ ie taking initiatives that backfire in the eyes of their supporters and the wider electorate. The ‘link up’ in the last Assembly with the Progressive Unionist Party – who are linked to the paramilitary group the Ulster Volunteer Force offended supporters and potential supporters alike.

The UUP, however, appeared to have turned over a new leaf when, back in July, it was announced that it had been having secret discussions over a period of months about an electoral arrangement with the Conservative Party that would allow people to vote for what is currently the main opposition party at Westminster and the party which may well form the next UK government. The media reacted very positively and Sir Reg was praised for his strategic vision.

This week the party reverted to type with the announcement that it wanted its supporters to consider giving their second and other preferences in the European election to other unionist parties – including Jim Allister’s Traditional Unionist Voice. This went down like the proverbial lead balloon, not just with UUP supporters, but with the Conservative leadership. On one level the idea that a unionist party should ask its voters to give their second preferences to another unionist party is unremarkable but in the context of on going talks with the Conservative Party and given the nature of the TUV this meeting and the subsequent release of a joint statement and photograph was simply insane.

Collapse of Northern Bank trial and the devolution of policing and justice

Sinn Fein South Belfast MLA Alex Maskey has stated that the collapse of the Northern Bank robbery trial highlights the need for "democratic local accountability over not just policing, but all aspects of the criminal justice system who came together to drive forward this bogus prosecution". He further added that “the transfer of these matters will mean proper scrutiny of the workings of these institutions and individuals, ensuring in future prosecutions take place on the basis of evidence and not because of the needs of any particular political agenda”.

This undoubtedly made good copy for him in the local media however any idea that devolution of policing and justice would prevent the Public Prosecution Service from making questionable decisions is wide of the mark. Indeed if we reached a situation where decisions about who is to be or who is not to be prosecuted are regularly referred to the Executive, public confidence in the Assembly and devolution in general would collapse.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Three weeks left for the Assembly

We could be heading for a November election. Apparently, behind the scenes Sinn Féin have told the DUP that the current impasse must be resolved in the next three weeks or they will bring the whole Assembly crashing down. This apparent ‘deadline’ is just another part of the wheeling and dealing, posturing and posing we have all become to familiar with. There is an increasing sense, however, that we might be heading for a(nother) ‘crisis’.

Sinn Féin may well be reflecting today that in light of the UK’s financial woes that Northern Ireland is not going to move any higher up Gordon Brown’s agenda for the next few months or even years. A collapse at this time might just prove terminal. At the very least, ‘the process’ might be put in to the ‘deep freeze’ until after the General Election.

Assembly members should also being getting concerned about their standing with the general public. Generally, the public seem to be irritated by the failure of the Executive to meet and believe the Assembly is not doing any work. The danger must be that increasing numbers of the public will decide that devolution is simply not workable. The combination of self inflicted political stagnation coupled with an economic situation that emphasises the local politicians relative impotence could be a dangerous mix.


DUP Education spokesman, Mervyn Storey flagged up a compromise on post primary education but there appeared to be no response from Sinn Féin. Meanwhile rumours continue to circulate that the DUP and SF have at least reached a compromise solution over the new draft of PPS 14, the controversial rural planning policy.

Peace People continue peace building

Away from the Stormont hothouse, the Peace People continue to do the real work of peace building by bringing bitter opponents together. This week they brought some Palestinians and Israelis together – including some influential individuals and some who were formerly ‘combatants’. Some hard talking against the backdrop of ceaseless rain in Northern Ireland will surely enable those involved to accentuate the positive when they return home to sunnier climes.

UUP conference cancelled

The Ulster Unionists conference was due to that place at the end of the week. The media had a field day when they discovered that the conference had been quietly postponed. The Ulster Unionist leadership blustered but the party was left looking foolish. The Party is now organising three consultation events around the proposed alignment with the Conservatives. Apparently, the aim is to make a decision in November and to have their conference on 6 December.

Friday, 19 September 2008

Assembly Business

The Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, the Child Maintenance Bill: the Budget (No.2) Bill and the Charities Bill received their Royal Assent.

The Diseases of Animals Bill and the Presumption of Death Bill received their Second Stage. There were a range of Committee changes and an Ad Hoc Committee on the Draft Criminal Damage (Compensation) (Amendment) Order (Northern Ireland) 2008. As predicted the debate on Republican Activity was somewhat circuitous – with the DUP and SF both claiming that the dissident Republican paramilitaries are heavily infiltrated by the security services.

Ministerial Statement: North/South Ministerial Council Aquaculture and Marine Sectoral Format

Private Members’ Business debates were held on Neighbourhood Renewal and Executive Matters. Those tabled on Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder and Integrated Schools were not moved

Next week

There are debates on Town Centres and PPS 5, Review of Conviction Case and Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder
Committee business consists of a motion on the Referral of Matters to the Assembly and Executive Review Committee and there are the usual range of Private Members’ debates on Integrated Schools, Planning in Residential Areas and 20mph Speed Limit Near Schools. There is an Adjournment Debate on the development of the Magee Campus of the University of Ulster.
Needless to say there is no Executive business.

Heading for the rocks

The current impasse is developing into a crisis. Crisis is an over-used word in NI politics, however, it appears that the stances of the DUP and SF are hardening and we could be on a conveyor belt to a real break down of the Executive. Neither side appears to be prepared to give the other any ‘wriggle room’. It is particularly worrying that Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness have started public exchanging ill tempered letters. Robinson is halting meetings of the North South Ministerial Council and the British Irish Council. He is also threatened to put the work of the Assembly Review Committee on hold.

Sinn Fein 'isolated'

The UUP, SDLP and DUP showed their frustration with Sinn Fein by holding a meeting without them. Sinn Fein again blocked the meeting of the Executive scheduled for Thursday. The ‘round-table’ meeting also showed that without the Executive their authority is extremely limited. There was some talk of limited business being transacted by exchange of letters but it is hard to see why Sinn Fein would concede this.

Gordon Brown

Gordon Brown visited Northern Ireland this week. He addressed the Assembly in a low key address in which he sided with those who believe that the DUP should agreeing to the setting of a date when policing and justice should be devolved. Brown was clearly seen to side with Sinn Fein which one suspects was bad politics on his part. Tony Blair – whose one really achievement was to keep ‘the process’ going – had an incredible ability to ‘balance’ his messaging to all the parties. Even when he was found to have mislead or to have failed to deliver all of the parties still maintained good relations with him. It could be that Brown’s knows that either there are simply no votes in NI for him or that in a few month’s time it won’t be his problem.

Peter Robinson will have been extremely irritated by Gordon Brown’s remarks to the Assembly.

Local by election turns out to be …a local by - election

Despite huge amounts of media coverage and commentary about what might or what might not happen in the Enniskillen by election the result was fairly predictable:

2008 by-election
Debbie Coyle (SF) 1816 1816 (28.8% +0.3%)
Rosemary Flanaghan (SDLP) 739 (11.7% -6.5%)
Arlene Foster (DUP) 1925 (30.6% +2.4%)
Basil Johnston (UUP) 1436 (22.8% + 2.3%)
Dr Kumar Kamble (All) 231 (3.6%)
Karen McHugh (Ind) 158 (2.5%)

Combined Unionist Vote 53.4% +4.7%
Combined Nationalist Vote 43.0% -3.7%

2005 local government election Enniskillen DEA

Votes by Party:
SF: 2,486 (28.5%), 2 seats
DUP: 2,454 (28.2%), 2 seats
UUP: 1,785 (20.5%), 1 seat
SDLP: 1,584 (18.2%), 2 seats
Soc Party: 406 (4.7%)

Essentially the unionist vote coalesced around the unionist front runner – the DUP and the nationalist vote largely coalesced around the nationalist front runner – SF. It is unclear why the nationalist vote – especially the SDLP share - dropped so markedly. Was it disinterest by SDLP supporters or did the SF squeeze on the SDLP fail to compensate for the numbers of disillusioned SF voters who did not vote?

Progressive Democrats RIP

The Progressive Democrats in the Republic of Ireland have been limping on since their bad result at last year’s General Election when they were reduced to just two members in the Dail – the Irish Republic’s Parliament. They have now decided to call a special conference at which it is highly likely the party will be wound up.

The PDs were a radical party and have seen their ideas, particularly on the economy, adopted by the other parties. Their right wing agenda of tax cuts and privatisation was essentially Thatcherism although it was a description that is rarely uttered in the Republic. The party can justifiably claim credit for much of the economic transformation in the Republic.

Omagh - CCHQ

The truth about security force activity in the run up to and in the immediate aftermath of the Omagh Bomb in 1998 came under the focus of the BBC’s Panorma this week. The programme revealed that the bomber’s mobile phones might well have been under survelliance before and after the bombing. This information was not passed on to the RUC until days after the event and they have never had access to the post bombing tapes.

The programme raised so many questions that Gordon Brown was quick to order a review by Sir Peter Gibson, the Intelligence Services Commissioner.

Alliance reconsider

The Alliance Party having ruled out taking the Policing and Justice Ministerial position seemed to reverse their position this week. David Ford – having spoken to Gordon Brown and the other leaders at Stormont – refused to rule out taking the job. One wonders what his price will be?

Saturday, 13 September 2008

Assembly Business

The failure of the Executive to achieve anything of substance over the summer is brought into stark relief next week when the Assembly Plenary sessions return but have no Executive business to discuss. A meeting is scheduled for 18 September and perhaps the log jam will be broken then – if the meeting goes ahead. The word is that having stared into the abyss and had a bit of a rant at each other the ‘mood music’ between Sinn Fein and the DUP is much better.
Two pieces of legislation continue their on their procedural path - the Second Stage of the Diseases of Animals Bill and the Second Stage of the Presumption of Death Bill. Rumours that the latter is designed to declare the Assembly dead are not true.

Monday also sees a raft of Assembly Committee changes – mainly DUP but also some UUP. Tuesday is entirely taken up with Private Members Motions on; Neighbourhood Renewal, Executive Matters, Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder and Integrated Schools. The one entitled ‘Executive Matters’ seems to be designed by the SDLP to let off a summer’s full of frustration about the inertia in the Executuve.

Law and Order

The UUP have tabled a motion noting the levels of ‘Republican activity and violence’ and condemning such activity and supporting the rule of law, etc. This initially looked like a clever ruse by the Ulster Unionists to make Sinn Fein appear in the Chamber and endorse the police through gritted teeth – although in reality most would probably have avoided the debate or turned up and ignored the motion. The SDLP have tabled an amendment to broaden the motion and in reality everyone will probably turn up, join hands, and condemn the troublemakers.

Reality anyone?

Meanwhile away from the marbled splendour of Stormont and esoteric debates about the levels of political support for policing people in the real world were more concerned about the huge hikes in prices for electricity. Coupled with other price rises in recent months for things such as gas, the fall in house prices, the credit crunch and a slowing economy people are rightly concerned about the future. On occasions the Assembly seems somewhat detached from this reality.

Gordon Brown

The current Prime Minister Gordon Brown is to visit Northern Ireland next Tuesday afternoon. He is meeting all the party leaders including the Alliance Leader David Ford. One assumes he is going to encourage Ford to take the job of Policing and Justice to get the Assembly out of its current hole. Ford of course has been here before and is likely to demand some concrete reforms of the Assembly set up – not least the designation system.

Whether Mr Brown’s visit will produce results remains to be seen. With opinion polls suggested a Labour meltdown his prime ministerial authority is looking somewhat lacklustre.

Peter Robinson to hold back the tide

Peter Robinson strongly hinted to the press that the Executive might delay the introduction of water charges due to the economic downturn. This was a marvelous piece of media management and was dutifully reported by the press – not one of who asked him at which Executive meeting this had been discussed. As the Executive has not met for months one can only assume that Mr Robinson did this to ‘bounce’ his Executive colleagues into agreement and to ensure he gets the political credit rather than his colleague Conor Murphy of Sinn Fein.

Has Mr Robinson decided that the General Election might be in the next twelve months? He might think that it would not be wise politically to be sending out rates bills with a new water element in the months leading up to either the European election in June or any possible General Election. It is a slightly risky strategy in that if water charges are finally introduced in April 2010 it could be in the run up to a 2010 General Election.

Robinson’s main focus is still said to be Policing and Justice. Although the DUP and SF have agreed that they will not take the post in the foreseeable future, Robinson is concerned that Sinn Fein Ministers could seek to interfere by using the power enshrined in the Executive’s rules that any three Ministers can call in any Ministerial decision.

Mark Durkan gets himself in a spin

Mark Durkan has been castigated by some nationalists – including Sinn Fein representatives - for suggesting that there will come a time when the structures of the Assembly may need to be overhauled. Notably he remarked that the designation system was part of the original ‘scaffolding’ of the Belfast Agreement and that hopefully there would come a time when it would be possible to take the ‘ugly edifice’ down. The negative reaction from some quarters was so intense that Durkan was forced to ‘clarify’ or rather qualify his remarks.

Unionists had welcomed his views. It is unclear whether this was an attempt by Mr Durkan to encourage debate or whether Mr Durkan was caught off guard. The remarks were part of his speech to the British-Irish Association Annual Conference in Oxford last weekend. Everything at the Conference is supposed to be under ‘Chatham House Rules’ whereby one can only quote the speaker with their permission. So one must assume that Mr Durkan approved the report initially?

Meanwhile the Irish News is reporting what we previously speculated – that Alban Maginness might well be the SDLP’s candidate in the European elections next June. Have the SDLP resigned themselves to not getting the Minister for Justice post?

Friday, 12 September 2008

Good and bad week for Sir Reg

Sir Reg has probably been capturing the public mood in recent weeks when calling for the Executive to meet and dismissing the idea of devolving policing and justice until the Assembly proves it can exercise the powers it currently has. Likewise his remarks that the system at Stormont needed reform also probably struck the right note with the public.

He must have been disappointed when his former Ministerial colleague came out to bat for the UUP candidate in the Enniskillen by election by dismissing the suitably of the DUP candidate, the Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster because she was a wife and a mother.

One suspects it is a two horse race between Mrs Foster and Denise Coyle the Sinn Fein candidate with Mrs Foster slightly ahead?

Sir Reg will have consoled himself with the standing ovation he received at the UUP’s Executive Committee meeting on Thursday evening. One attendee said that Sir Reg’s presentation on the proposed merger with David Cameron’s Conservatives was the best he has ever given.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

An exercise in spin?

Following hot on the heels of his leader, Nigel Dodds has issued a press release denouncing any possibility whatsoever of devolving policing and justice to a Sinn Féin Minister. At one level this is marvelous spin. The DUP’s core support hear what they want to hear – a hard-line statement ruling out devolution of policing and justice. Many will fail to notice the caveat – to a Sinn Féin Minister. Given that the DUP and Sinn Féin have already agreed that the position should not initially be held be either of their parties this is an unnecessary caveat to insert – unless one also wanted to leave open the possibility of devolving policing and justice. Hence the press release also acts as a message to SF that the DUP are open to the idea and most importantly leaves no hostages to fortune for Jim Allister, the former DUP MEP to exploit.

Focus on the IRA ‘Army Council’ avoids the crucial questions

This week the International Monitoring Commission reported. It had been asked by the governments of the UK and the Republic of Ireland to report on the status of the IRA’s ruling body – the ‘Army Council’. The report gave such a beneficent version of the situation it seems likely that the former ‘godfathers of terrorism’ are so busily employed in ‘good works’ that they really haven’t had time to do anything much at all.

This was predictable enough. Equally predictable was the appearance by key figures, such as NI Secretary of State Shaun Woodward, engaging in another round of superlatives about just what a crucial thing this was. Even Gordon Brown was wheeled out to attempt to increase the political pressure and to give momentum to the idea that policing and justice should be devolved as soon as possible. Their efforts have met limited success to date. Attempting to make a political event out of the non event of the Army Council, defeated the Northern Ireland Office hyperbole section. The Peace Process has worn them out.

First Minister Peter Robinson leapt forward and somewhat inexplicably focused on the continued existence – however inoperative – of the Army Council, as a reason to still hold back on the devolution of policing and justice. Bizarrely, the DUP maintain that the word of the IMC was not enough. They need reassurance from the leadership of the Republican movement.
A cynic might suggest such an approach has more to do with political choreography than genuine opposition. There is a case to be made that as the Executive cannot successfully operate the powers it already has, devolving such a controversial area is premature. There is also an agreement that the public – despite apparent NIO opinion polling – is wary of giving these powers to local politicians. The DUP have not made these arguments but merely argued about the existence of the Army Council.

The public wait with bated breath on the outcome of crucial talks to see if DUP and SF can break the political deadlock

The above heading could well have featured in the Northern Ireland media this week and may well feature next week. Not least because local political journalists, like the Stormont politicians they study, often lose sight of the bigger picture.

In truth, many probably paid more attention to the initiative by Eleanor Gill and the Consumer Council to give advice on the ‘credit crunch’, than the crunch talks between the DUP and SF.
With fuel and food bills rocketing and the housing market in a state of flux, many have had the limitations of Stormont brought into sharp relief. Margaret Ritchie, the Social Development Minister got herself some good publicity for a new housing scheme that will help 100 families or so. More people focused on the Labour government in hope of help but the effect of his Stamp Duty holiday might benefit fewer people in NI than Mrs Ritchie’s scheme.

SDLP call for an end to designation, UUP call for end to mandatory coalition

The SDLP Leader, Mark Durkan, in a speech to the British Irish Association in Oxford called for an end to the system whereby political parties in NI fighting Assembly elections have to declare themselves as ‘unionist’ or ‘nationalist’ (or other). The system has always been discriminatory in that it means that a ‘nationalist’ or ‘unionist’ MLA is given more influence than an ‘other’.
Meanwhile, the UUP Leader, Sir Reg Empey has called for an end to the system of mandatory coalitions.

Both Empey and Durkan reckoned both had been necessary evils at the time of the Good Friday Agreement but each believed that issues could be better provided for.

Friday, 22 August 2008

Euro Election candidates

Political anoraks are beginning to think about the European elections. The SDLP lost its seat last time and would dearly love to win one of the three seats on offer on 4 June 2009. The suggestion that they might be considering running party stalwart Alban Maginnis seems to suggest that they do not really believe winning a seat is possible. Moreover, given that Maginnis is well qualified and often suggested as a possible Policing and Justice Minister, it would seem to migitate against such a candidacy. Or perhaps it suggests that the SDLP believe that the devolution of policing and justice is highly unlikely to happen this side of 4 June 2009?

Should Maginnis become Justice Minister (before or after the Euros and regardless of whether he is the SDLP candidate) few will have served a longer political apprenticeship.
The UUP/Conservatives appear to be lining up sitting MEP Jim Nicholson as their candidate - although there are also rumours of an alternative.

Jim Allister the former DUP member and sitting MEP is determined to run again. As well as attacking the DUP for going into government with Sinn Féin, he will attempt to paint any prospective DUP candidate as a ‘vote-splitter’.

The DUP certainly seem worried about Allister and his Traditional Unionist Vote party. Apparently, Sammy Wilson and Edwin Poots have turned down the idea of running – the later in no uncertain terms – when approached privately by their party leader. Arlene Foster has publicly said she has no wish to fight the election. Nigel Dodds and Jeffrey Donaldson have also been suggested and Dodds appear to be a serious possibility. He would, of course, have to stand down from Westminster if elected.

Alliance reaffirms its position on policing

The Alliance Party has again said it will not take a proposed policing and justice ministry at Stormont. There had been speculation over the weekend that the party may reverse a decision not to take the job and that the DUP was preparing to enter into talks with Alliance about this.

Ian Paisley Junior hasn’t gone away you know

Ian Paisley Junior seized the opportunity, as a member of the Policing Board, to respond to the attacks on police officers, by apparently saying that sooner or later a police officer would be murdered "unless the police are able to deploy ruthlessness in tracking down and wiping out these dissident members." He added that “if dissidents are shot on sight, the community will accept that it is a necessary use of lethal force to prevent dissident republicanism from growing”.

Some regarded these remarks as inflammatory but in reality the remarks and the reaction are overdone. The only way that dissidents could be ‘shot on sight’ is if they were confronted during an attack on police officers. In that situation, most people would probably agree that the police have the right to open fire. Ian Junior managed to create a headline and get an over-reaction – he must have been delighted.

Ian Paisley Junior hasn’t gone away you know

Ian Paisley Junior seized the opportunity, as a member of the Policing Board, to respond to the attacks on police officers, by apparently saying that sooner or later a police officer would be murdered "unless the police are able to deploy ruthlessness in tracking down and wiping out these dissident members." He added that “if dissidents are shot on sight, the community will accept that it is a necessary use of lethal force to prevent dissident republicanism from growing”.

Some regarded these remarks as inflammatory but in reality the remarks and the reaction are overdone. The only way that dissidents could be ‘shot on sight’ is if they were confronted during an attack on police officers. In that situation, most people would probably agree that the police have the right to open fire. Ian Junior managed to create a headline and get an over-reaction – he must have been delighted.

Semtex discovery sparks unease

The revelation that last week’s ‘dissident’ republican attack on police officers in Fermanagh involved the plastic explosive, semtex, certainly alarmed some people in Northern Ireland. To date, dissident attacks have largely been ambushes involved guns and a few bombs – such as the one under a police officer’s car in Co. Tyrone several months ago. This was, however, the first time that there has been official recognition that commercial explosives are in the hands of ‘dissidents’.

Hundreds of tonnes of semtex were exported to Libya between 1975 and 1981 by the manufacturers in what is now the Czech Republic. Some of this ended up in the hands of groups such as the Provisional IRA during the mid and late 1980s. The explosive has a shelf life of about 20 years so the important question is whether this is an old or new product – the police appear to believe it is old. That begs the question – given that PIRA has decommissioned – how did it come into the ‘dissidents’ possession?

Empey outlines his vision

Having been pleasantly surprised by the media and public reaction to the announcement that the Ulster Unionists were in talks with the Conservatives about a possible merger, Sir Reg Empey, the Ulster Unionist Leader has started to sell the idea with two opinion pieces – one in the News Letter and one in the Belfast Telegraph. Apparently there has been little dissent amongst UUP members about the idea but confusion still reins amongst the Democratic Unionists.

Some of their MLAs have rushed to attack the Tories and the UUP. Interestingly, however, their MPs have not said a word in recent weeks. Nigel Dodds had originally said that the likely outcome of the next General Election was a ‘hung’ Parliament. Perhaps they have had time to read up on the more recent opinion poll evidence and that might explain the silence of the MPs.

Friday, 15 August 2008

Adams warns of collapse of power-sharing (again)

Sinn Féin have been flagging up for months how unhappy they are with the current political situation. The original ‘guideline’ date for the devolution of policing and justice was way back in May. An Irish Language Act seems unlikely in the near future either. There was some optimism when the party and the DUP announced that they had agreed on one the concept of one Justice Department and a non DUP or SF Minister. However, the issue is a long way from resolution. Alliance ruled out the idea of taking the Ministerial post in any new Department and the other parties soon start quibbling about whether there could be more that 10 Departments and whether under d’Hondt it was the SDLP’s ‘turn’.

It may be that Sinn Féin has been more uneasy by the announcement that the International Monitoring Commission is to report in September on the status on the IRA’s Army Council. Should it report the Army Council’s continued existence, in the eyes of the DUP, this would rule out movement on policing and justice for the foreseeable future. The DUP would certainly not want to see anything happen this side of the European elections, if there is no movement on this come September.

The accepted wisdom appears to be that Gerry Adams and Sinn Féin need to appear to be ‘delivering’ something if they are to keep their supporters contented. In the meantime, the party continues to block ‘normal’ business at Executive level and Gerry Adams says that the British and Irish governments must introduce new arrangements, if power-sharing at Stormont fails. Unfortunately for Mr Adams, the Irish Government is more concerned about its economy and the Lisbon Treaty than ‘the North’ these days. Gordon Brown and Labour’s problems are too many to mention but suffice to say Northern Ireland isn’t anywhere near the top of their concerns either.

With the two government’s attention elsewhere and the DUP in no hurry to move, the stalemate looks set to continue. Sinn Féin’s options, beyond bringing the whole carefully constructed edifice down (the ‘mutually assured destruction’ option), seem very limited.
With another Westminster by-election pending and Gordon Brown’s grip on power looking more tenuous by the day, Sinn Féin strategists will surely be thinking about a 2009 General Election and whether an incoming Conservative administration would be any more receptive to their concerns than the present one.

UUP/Conservative merger under attack

The DUP thinks it has discovered a way to discomfort the Ulster Unionists about the current merger talks with the Conservatives. They have discovered a quote on the Conservative’s Northern Ireland website describing the Orange Order as a "backward-facing, history - obsessed, parish pump society". Despite clearly being a personal opinion, rather than an official position, the DUP have issued three press releases this week in a clear attempt to keep the story in the news.
The Conservatives and Ulster Unionists reacted fairly dismissively about the story. David McNarry, the UUP MLA for Strangford, and the UUP Chief Whip at Stormont, broke ranks and sided with the DUP and demanded an apology from the Conservatives. Demanding things via the media is of course largely guaranteed not to get you what you want – but it will get you publicity.

Northern Ireland Office to be abolished?

It was a quiet week for news so it was no surprise that the story that Gordon Brown might be considering merging the NIO with the Welsh and Scottish Offices was trotted out again. If there is any truth in the story, it is unlikely to give Gerry Adams and his party any hope that Northern Ireland is a core concern of the present Labour administration.

Iris Robinson’s psychiatrist quits

The psychiatrist who DUP MP Iris Robinson claimed could “cure” homosexuals has resigned from her employment. Dr Paul Miller, a part-time adviser to the Strangford MP and MLA, has decided he can no longer work for her after her controversial comments about gay people.

The Sinn Fein Factor

Tonight in West Belfast’s Felons Club, Sinn Fein members, and local republicans will hold an X-Factor style talent competition. For anyone in attendance, look out for Sue Ramsey’s version of ‘Baby Spice.’

Omagh Remembered

It is ten years to the day since the bombing of Omagh. The narrow street containing a former coffee shop this commentator used to frequent, a car accessory/model shop with that distinctive smell of epoxy resin glue, a clothes shop owned by a family whose sons he went to school with and Nichol and Shiels where his mother used to buy all our towels and duvet covers – all destroyed along with 31 lives.

The injured and the relatives still struggle to come to terms with the attack and as yet nobody has been convicted in relation to the bombing. This week the Chief Constable, Hugh Order admitted in was highly unlikely that anyone ever would be.

Friday, 8 August 2008

IRA Army Council no longer exists?

One would have thought that P O’Neill could have issued one more statement before exiting the stage. Perhaps the British and Irish governments feared that if the famous pseudonym for the IRA Army Council sent one last fax (or does he use email these days?), it could be construed as an ‘operational capability’ by some in the unionist community? But how does one substantiate that a secret, illegal organisation has ceased to be?

Hence the announcement that the British and Irish governments have asked the International Monitoring Commission to produce a special report clarifying the status and role of the IRA's army council.

One assumes the IMC will report back that, having looked high and low, they can find no trace of any secret, illegal organisation operating under the name ‘IRA Army Council’. After all, if the IMC were to say the Army Council still exists, but only meets for afternoon tea every second Thursday in the month, then some in the unionist community would say that that was enough to delay the devolution of policing and justice indefinitely.

For many unionist politicians it seems that the apparent absence of any paramilitary activity for many years and the decommissioning of its weapons is insufficient. For an organisation whose actions with the bomb and bullet very definitely spoke louder than words, the opposite situation was never going to be enough for many.

Some, such as DUP MP, Jeffrey Donaldson suggest that the disbandment of the Army Council is only one of a number of issues that need to be settled before policing and justice is devolved. The truth is that many, if not most unionist politicians, are still wary about the idea. Even the agreement between the DUP and Sinn Féin that neither party will nominate anyone for the position of Minister for Justice, has not removed concerns entirely.

Ulster Unionist Leader Sir Reg Empey has pointed out that the Executive’s failure to properly use the powers in current process is hardly a ringing endorsement or a strong argument in favour of devolving more, possibly controversial, powers.

Loyalist weapons remain

Some commentators have pointed out that many unionist politicians have said very little indeed about the fact that loyalist paramilitary organisations remain armed. Unionist politicians may argue that they have always condemned loyalist paramilitaries. However, some might feel they have disproportionately focused on the existence or otherwise of an unarmed, inactive organisation – the IRA - much more than armed loyalist groups. This perception, combined with the messages from the UK government that they will apparently not order the police to seize weapons and that they are extending the amnesty period for handing in weapons, hardly amounts to real pressure on the loyalist groups to move.

Sinn Féin resignation blow

Sinn Féin will be very disappointed at the resignation of their well known former Mayor of Dungannon, Barry Monteith, who has served on Dungannon council for the last seven years. He announced that he was splitting from the party because he could “no longer reconcile with its strategy”, claiming that it was not geared towards Irish unification.

While he appears to be parting on relatively amicable terms, the real concern for Sinn Féin is that for every councillor they lose how many dozens or hundreds of voters are equally disillusioned?

Maze stadium decision ‘within weeks’

The newly installed Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure, Gregory Campbell, has said that he will make a public decision on the proposal for a stadium at the site of the former Maze prison as soon as the Assembly returns in September. The speculation is that he will rule out the Maze proposal on financial grounds.

One wonders how this will affect the wider political scene. The leaderships of the DUP and Sinn Féin appear to be organising another series of well-choreographed developments. The first of these will likely be the announcement by the IMC that the Army Council has ceased to be. The second might be a date for the devolution of policing and justice? What will happen if Gregory Campbell were to bin the Maze Stadium and the proposed Conflict Transformation Centre so being pushed by Sinn Féin?

Gregory Campbell is known to be on the sceptical wing of the DUP i.e. those who are unsure about the whole idea of power-sharing with Sinn Féin. So much will depend whether the DUP are acting as an united team.

RTÉ in Northern Ireland

Under The Broadcasting (Amendment) Act 2007, the Republic’s state broadcasting network, RTÉ is required to replace their obsolete analogue terrestrial platform with a new DTT (digital terrestrial television) platform with the same coverage as the current analogue network and which can accommodate the RTÉ channels, TG4 and TV3.

Some in Northern Ireland are stoking fears that RTÉ’s switchover from analogue to DTT will see northern viewers deprived of RTÉ. The Irish News' editorial this week wrongly implies that the new service will be via subscription. However, it is highly likely that the new service will be available to viewers in most of NI. That said, the Republic is using the latest digital television technology – MPEG 4 and it is possible that rather than having two aerials, as many people do at present, it may be necessary to have two digital boxes.

Given that RTÉ rarely reaches 5 per cent of audience share in NI (compared to 15 per cent plus share that UK TV stations achieve in the Republic), it is possible that many people will opt not buy an additional box. RTÉ and TG4 are already available in Northern Ireland via satellite.

FF/SDLP Working Group

BBC NI political correspondent Martina Purdy is reporting that the SDLP Working Group that is looking at the party’s links with the main parties in the Republic is due to meet this week. Could it be that the SDLP’s interest has been re-ignited by the Ulster Unionist attempts to seek a broader platform by merging with the Conservatives?

Friday, 1 August 2008

Impasse continues

Last week we speculated that if Sinn Féin signalled their acceptance of the idea of an Alliance Policing and Justice Minister, it might resolve the current impasse. The next day Gerry Kelly, the Sinn Féin Junior Minister, did precisely that but the impasse continues. The Alliance Party's Naomi Long has said there has been no serious offer from the DUP or Sinn Féin about her party taking the position.

Despite Mr Robinson’s offer to return from his month long holiday in the USA if necessary, it doesn’t look if a break through is likely in the next few weeks.

Empey dismisses idea of devolved policing and justice in near future

UUP Leader Sir Reg Empey said that Sinn Féin’s ‘blackmail and bullying’ did not inspire him with any confidence that the Executive was currently ‘mature’ enough for the devolution of policing and justice. Sinn Féin maintained that their chief Negotiator, the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, was available for ‘meaningful discussions’ but added they did not see the point of holding Executive meetings unless a number of ‘outstanding issues’ including policing and justice were addressed

Police ‘misinterpreted’ and Labour Minister unclear

The Direct Rule Criminal Justice Minister, Paul Goggins, declined to call on police to seize loyalist weapons after a senior PSNI officer indicated that police know how to find arms dumps. Mr Goggins extraordinary evasion – he repeatedly called on the paramilitaries to hand the weapons in – did not go down well in many circles.

Mr Goggins remarks came after the outgoing Assistant Chief Constable Peter Sheridan, currently in charge of intelligence, was reported as saying that police have intelligence in place to locate loyalist weapons. He later said that he had not been accurately reported. Was this the case or was the soon-to-retire top policeman hinting at political interference?

Mr Goggins also announced that cash for a republican neighbourhood justice scheme is likely to be approved — in spite of SDLP claims that the funding will be based on a flawed report.
One can only assume that Mr Goggins was distracted by the speculation about the Labour leadership and the Labour party’s problems in general.

Republican dissident threat considerable

A number of papers reported that MI5 apparently believe that the greatest terrorist threat to the UK comes from Irish Republican dissidents not ‘Islamic’ fundamentalists.

The security services are picking up more suspicious activity from Northern Ireland's dissident republicans than from any other radical group in the UK, according to the Guardian. Up to 60% of all the security services' electronic intercepts - phonetaps and other covert technical operations - have come from dissidents, despite the threat posed by hundreds of suspected Islamist extremists on the UK mainland.

Sir Hugh Orde, chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, has separately confirmed that the dissident threat is the highest since he took office.

Sinn Féin under attacks from Republican dissidents

Sinn Féin Assembly Member for North Antrim, Daithi McKay, and another Sinn Féin member were apparently assaulted in Ballymena by Irish Republican dissidents. How one distinguishes between anti social elements and disgruntled Irish Republicans is unclear. It is unclear whether Mr McKay has reported the incident to the PSNI.

Donations to local parties more than double after devolution

The Belfast Telegraph has drawn attention to the fact that private donations to Northern Ireland's four main political parties soared to over £700,000 in 2007. This could have been because people were keen to ‘invest’ in the political process now that devolution is working. The Telegraph also drew attention to the fact that unlike their counterparts in Britain and the Republic, parties here are permitted to keep the identities of donors secret.

The Belfast Telegraph has also trained its eyes on MLAs renting offices from their own political parties using their allowances from Stormont.

Iris Robinson controversy rumbles on

The controversy over the remarks by Iris Robinson about homosexuality and the need for government to uphold ‘God’s Law’ continued. Prominent gay rights activist Peter Thatchell who was in Belfast this week called on her to resign and an on line petition on the Downing Street website calling for the same reached over 12,000 signatures. According to some reports, Mrs Robinson is keen to establish a national profile.

‘Home-coming’ parade

The News Letter’s campaign to have a ‘home-coming’ parade for local troops returning from activist service has gained support and stirred some opposition. Sinn Féin Assembly Member, Barry McElduff, made several appearances in the media to voice his opposition. Whether this opposition is reflected in official party policy remains to be seen.

Such a parade would undoubtedly represent a security nightmare

Friday, 25 July 2008


Martin McGuinness has confirmed what everyone knew – the Executive is deadlocked. He admitted there is a ‘stalemate’. The Executive failed to meet again this week. This came as a shock to some but as the First Minister Peter Robinson was heading off to America on Tuesday, the reality is that there was never going to be a meeting this week. One hopes that the First Minister has an enjoyable holiday and will come back fully recovered and no longer need a wheelchair to get around at Westminster. Mrs Robinson is probably looking forward to a break too.

Nearly 40 pieces of legislation or papers that require rubber stamping by the Executive have been delayed by the current differences between the two main parties. About half a dozen were approved by emergency procedures but these were largely those relating to non contentious technical issues.

A range of important issues remain unresolved, however, despite noises from Sinn Féin, it is probably inaccurate to say that we have reached crisis point. There are probably a few months before that might occur. Sinn Féin need something to keep their ‘troops’ happy but it still remains to be seen what incentive there is for the DUP to move. If Shaun Woodward, the Secretary of State, threatens to introduce an Irish Language Act through Westminster and if Sinn Féin were to signal that they would accept an Alliance Policing and Justice Minister, there could yet be a resolution of the impasse.

Should things drift into winter, the DUP will worry about devolving policing and justice in what would essentially be the run up to the European elections.

Labour shaken by loss of Glasgow East to Scottish Nationalists

Long after Crewe and Nantwich is forgotten Glasgow East will be remembered. It could well be the election result that brings down Gordon Brown. Crewe and Nantwich was a safe Labour seat. Glasgow East was one of its strongest redoubts. This will spread panic throughout Labour MPs as they will virtually all fear losing their seats. The fact that this is a by election, and unlikely to repeated in a General Election, is a rational view that somehow gets lost when frightened MPs focus on the survival of their majority. Gordon Brown is lucky that Westminster is in Recess. This will help slow the spread of panic but is unlikely to stop the plotting. Changing their leader again is only likely to reduce their losses not prevent them losing the general election. Individual MPs may believe a new leader will give them enough ‘bounce’ in the opinion poll ratings to enable them to avoid defeat. Precisely who would volunteer to be leader in order to ‘reduce the losses’ at the next general election is unclear.

Conservatives and Ulster Unionists shock the commentariat

The media was taken aback when the Conservatives and Ulster Unionists revealed that they had been in secret talks about joining forces to ‘create a new electoral force’ in Northern Ireland with a view to bringing the region into ‘normal’ UK politics.

The other political parties in Northern Ireland were equally taken aback by the announcement. The DUP did not know whether to attack their rivals or not – possibly for fear of damaging their relations with the Conservatives even further. The DUP’s decision to support the government on the vote on 42 day detention vote, Iris Robinson’s remarks about homosexuality and the need for the government to uphold ‘God’s Laws’ have hugely damaged the party’s relations with the Conservatives.

Mr Cameron in particular shocked the ‘experts’ who appear to believe that he would be very pragmatic and ‘keep in’ with the DUP in case there is a hung Parliament. Others felt that Mr Cameron might be tempted simply to seek an alliance with the UUP under which any future Ulster Unionist MP would take the Conservative whip. However, in the event, Mr Cameron staked a flag in the ground in favour of a complete merger.

Iris Robinson remarks fuel controversy

Fuel was added to the fire of controversy caused by last week’s remarks by Iris Robinson, the MP and MLA for Strangford about homosexuals when the Belfast Telegraph unearthed a Hansard remark by Mrs Robinson in which she said homosexual was worse than child abuse. The wife of the First Minister then claimed that she had been misreported – apparently unaware that Hansard retains audio copies of all Westminster proceedings. Mrs Robinson then issued a statement which appeared to suggest that everyone would know that she did not mean what she said.

Mrs Robinson is currently on holiday with her husband.

Foster to stand for DUP in council by-election

Arlene Foster, the DUP MLA and Enterprise Minister, has been chosen as the DUP's candidate to contest the Fermanagh council by-election. Mrs Foster resigned from the same council a few months ago when she was the Environment Minister - a job whose remit includes local government. Now that she has no conflict of interest it appears she cannot bear to stay off the council. The UUP – having caused the by election by preventing a co-option – are now in a difficult position. If they stand Mrs Foster will certainly outpoll their candidate and they might spilt the unionist vote allowing Sinn Féin to take the seat.

Mrs Foster will be delighted to have the opportunity to raise her profile in one of the main towns in the Fermanagh and South Tyrone Westminster constituency. She is also expected to be the DUP’s candidate at the General Election when she will attempt to wrest the seat from her Ministerial colleague, Sinn Féin’s Michelle Gildernew.

Abortion row brewing

Virtually all of Northern Ireland’s politicians are united in their desire to prevent the region coming into line with GB on the issue of abortion. It is a subject that excites great passion and we could see a huge row at Westminster come the autumn. A group of backbench MPs – Labour and Conservative - have tabled an amendment to the Human Embryology and Fertilisation Bill that would change the law to bring NI in line with GB.

This Bill could have completed its Commons stages before the Recess and it is believed that Gordon Brown would have preferred that it had. However, apparently Harriet Harman ensured it didn’t and thus facilitated this amendment. Ironically, it could be used to Brown’s advantage. He could threaten to do nothing to prevent the passage of the amendment and say to the DUP and SF that if they want to prevent it becoming law all they need to do is to agree to devolved criminal justice matters by the autumn.

Obama cites Belfast as an example to the world

Speaking in Berlin, Senator Barack Obama, the democratic candidate in the US presidential election said that the walls in Belfast have come down. I feel another presidential visit coming on – if only to educate the Senator on the reality.

Friday, 18 July 2008

Iris Robinson – accident or design?

The highlight in what was a slow week for news was the row that erupted on Radio Ulster when Iris Robinson MP MLA, wife of the First Minister, decided to phone in and participate in a radio discussion on abortion. The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety issued guidance on the current legal position for Termination of Pregnancy for public consultation on Wednesday. As a Member of Parliament, Assembly Member and Chair of the Assembly’s Health Committee, which will participate in the consultation process in due course, some would have thought that Mrs Robinson would have ample opportunity to air her views on this subject without needing to phone into the Nolan Show – a radio show renowned for being controversial and provocative. In the midst of heated exchanges, Mrs Robinson said that “the government has a responsibility to uphold God’s laws morally.”

The comment provoked reaction both for and against her views. This is the second time within a number of weeks that remarks made by the Strangford MP have led to controversy. In June, Mrs Robinson described homosexuality as an “abomination” and suggested gay people could be “turned” heterosexual with psychiatric help.

Some may believe this is cunning ploy by the DUP to appeal to disaffected DUP voters who have deserted the party following the decision by Ian Paisley to enter a power-sharing government with Sinn Féin. The theory is that many of these voters share Mrs Robinson’s religious views and that the ‘hurt’ and ‘betrayal’ they feel over the power-sharing deal will be assuaged by her pronouncements on moral and religious issues.

It is more likely that Mrs Robinson passionately believes her opinions and was simply airing them. It is certainly unlikely to cause the DUP much electoral damage but it certainly undermines her husband’s strategy to broaden the DUP’s appeal.

Civic Forum to be revived?

There is speculation that the Civic Forum, which was suspended when the Executive collapsed in 2002, might be revived. It would be extraordinary if it was revived. Not just because the DUP have never been keen on the body but because in the intervening years most organisations who would wish to influence public policy – who might have seen the Forum as a useful avenue - have sooner or later decided to engage with the Assembly and the local political parties directly.

Given that the Assembly will always been the dominant influence, as a democratically elected institution charged with prioritising and deciding on policy and budgets, it is difficult to see many of these organisations devoting resources to the Civic Forum in the future.

The Civic Forum contained representatives of sectional interests and had no democratic legitimacy and in a place as small of Northern Ireland, it is hard to argue that its revival would add much to the decision making processes of the region.

Woodward warns he will get tough soon and warns of ‘vacuum’

The Secretary of State, Shaun Woodward has warned loyalist paramilitaries that they need to get a move on with decommissioning – at least that was the ‘spin’. The media reported that those who refused to give up their weapons risked being jailed after “the British government confirmed it is to scrap decommissioning legislation”. In fact the legislation does not run out until the February 2009 and the government was actually announcing it is going to renew the legislation for another year i.e. until February 2010. So loyalist paramilitaries can in fact comfortably hang on to their weapons for another year and a half.

Mr Woodward also said that the failure to devolve policing and justice was providing a window of opportunity for republican dissidents. One fails to see those who are involved in terrorist activity being swayed by this issue alone. They regard the whole power-sharing settlement as wrong and believe Sinn Féin are in the wrong. So even the sight of a Sinn Féin Policing and Justice Minister would be unlikely to persuade them to change their position.

Mr Woodward also said that completing devolution would aid the economy.

2p fuel duty postponed

The decision by Mr Woodward’s colleagues to abandon the planned 2p a litre increase in fuel duty will probably have more impact on Northern Ireland’s economy than anything loyalist paramiliarties ever do. Most commentators believe the announcement is an attempt to persuade voters in the Glasgow East constituency to stick with Labour in the by election on 24 July.

Until Labour contest (and win) an election in Northern Ireland there is no danger of the region’s voters in any constituency having such an impact on the Labour government.

Empey says Executive facing major problem

Sir Reg Empey has publicly alluded to the current impasse behind the scenes in the Executive. The transfer of policing and justice powers, the future of the Maze stadium project, academic selection, the Irish language are among the items that form part of a deadlock between the DUP and Sinn Féin.

Sir Reg was obviously eager to distance his party from any crisis that might arise in the coming months. He was also keen to rubbish the suggestion that the DUP and SF might agree to an independent Minister for policing and justice. It is hard to see how an individual could be found who would be acceptable to both DUP and SF. But perhaps two or even four such individuals could be found. This seemed to solve the Victims Commissioners impasse.

Both the UUP and the SDLP have voiced opposition to the idea of an Alliance Minister filling the position.

Twelfth July

The Orange parades on and around the 12 July passed off with only a few incidents of violence. Overall the parades were largely peaceful but the attempts to promote the event as cross community have had more mixed results.

Bombardier announces record investment

The media was delighted to revel in the announcement of £500m investment by Bombardier, which will secure about 800 jobs in the production of composite wings for their new aircraft. While the announcement is certainly welcome it should be put in context. Bombardier will be creating 3,500 highly skilled jobs in Mirabel and St. Laurent in Canada as part of the same project.

Friday, 11 July 2008

DUP and SF continue haggling

To the complete indifference of the overwhelming majority of the population, the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Féin continue to disagree over a number of key issues, most notably the timetable for the devolution of policing and justice. Last week it was reported that Peter Robinson was amenable to a 12 month timetable. This week it is reported that Sinn Féin are insisting it is done by the Autumn (perhaps with the IRA Army Council standing down over the summer?).

Meanwhile, the DUP are eager to end the uncertainty around academic selection and Sinn Féin are keen to get an Irish Language Act. Sinn Féin and the DUP are probably both keen to postpone water charging.

Interestingly, in response to a question from the Conservative Shadow Secretary of State, Owen Paterson, the government have signalled that, at present, they intend to retain the proceeds of all sell offs of surplus Army bases. It might be that the government are still trying to use this as a method of encouraging the parties to reach agreement. (Then again this might be all agreed between the DUP and Labour as part of their deal on the 42 day vote and this is simply a smokescreen that can be dispensed with at a more appropriate time.)

The DUP appear to be in the stronger position. While they would like to end the uncertainty over academic selection, they know selection will continue, with the ‘rebel’ grammars conducting their own tests. The DUP, almost certainly have a commitment for £200million to delay water charging but ironically it is Sinn Féin who are probably more vulnerable on this issue than the other parties. They were most strident in their criticism of water charging at election time and it would be their Minister, Conor Murphy, who would have to introduce the tax. The SDLP have probably already drafted their leaflets about the ‘Murphy Tax’.

Sinn Féin need to steady their supporters by delivering policing and justice and an Irish Language Act but appear only to have the disbandment of the Army Council to bring to the negotiating table.

This may explain why Sinn Féin have apparently started to block the Executive from making any decisions and to again brief certain journalists about the possibility that the entire Executive could collapse. Even a decision on the replacement policy for Planning Policy Statement 14 – the controversial policy on restricting building in the countryside – has now been caught up in the delaying tactics.

It simply does not seem credible that Sinn Féin would collapse the institutions. Such a course of action would be a gift to Republican dissidents in the run up to the European election. It would be an admission of failure by Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. In addition, the party would not get a lot of sympathy from the UK, Irish or US administrations. The governments may feel that the DUP should commit to devolving policing and justice but would point out that the IRA delayed decommissioning for many years. Also, at the end of the day, the Sinn Féin leadership signed up to the St Andrews Agreement, which contained a suggested date not a deadline for transferring policing and justice powers to the Assembly.

The collapsing of the institutions would not reflect well on Gordon Brown and any new Direct Rule regime might simply conduct a ‘holding exercise’. They would be unlikely to even introduce an Irish Language Act in such a scenario let alone introduce joint British/Irish control of policing and justice

General Election sooner rather than later?

The Glasgow East by election is one of those unforeseen ‘events’ that might just lead to things going wrong for Gordon Brown. Should Labour lose their third safest seat in Scotland – and given the fiasco about finding someone willing to fight the seat and the resignation of Labour’s leader in Scotland, this is a distinct possibility - Labour MPs might just decide they need a new leader to save themselves from electoral meltdown. A new Labour leader, who like Brown would have no personal mandate to be Prime Minster, might decide that the Labour party’s best chance would be to combine the European elections with a General Election – in the hope that the Conservatives differences to Europe emerge as a major issue.

This could mean a Conservative government within the year. Undoubtedly, Sinn Féin, in particular, will have to bear this in mind when considering its future tactics.

The myth of ‘unionist unity’

The decision to call a by election in Fermanagh following the death of a DUP councillor, revealed that recent talk about ‘unionist unity’ is probably largely just talk. The Council could have agreed to co-opt a replacement but the Ulster Unionists blocked that possibility. Any study of unionist political history and opinion shows the tremendous difficulty in uniting the ‘ethnic mobilisation’ element of unionism – which is often nakedly sectarian - with the broad more cosmopolitan or ‘civic’ unionism that focus on the diversity and tolerance and the wider benefits of the UK.

Indeed many would increasingly question the desirability of promoting ‘unionist unity’ as the sectarian element and ‘baggage’ of the main unionist parties means that turnout amongst pro Union voters continues to decline. While there is undoubtedly a market for one ‘Protestant’ unionist party, the development of a party that promotes a broader agenda might actually attract more voters to the polls .

Peter Robinson to meet loyalist paramilitaries

The First Minister, Peter Robinson, has agreed to meet representatives of the Ulster Volunteer Force. The UVF which was closely allied with the Progressive Unionists (who have one Assembly Member, Dawn Purvis) was responsible for a large number of terrorist attacks throughout the Troubles. By failing to decommission and maintaining an ambiguous stance on the Belfast Agreement, the UVF have largely eroded what little political bargaining power they had.

Cowen again plays down SDLP/Fianna Fail merger speculation

The Taoiseach and Leader of Fianna Fail, Brian Cowen, moved recently to dampen speculation about the party organising in Northern Ireland. This week further cold water was poured on the idea by Fianna Fail. Most commentators have implied that FF were going off the idea but the truth is that the firmer the proposal became, the more rank and file SDLP members and voters became annoyed – and voiced their annoyance internally.

Friday, 4 July 2008

Devil still in the detail

There is a well known joke that our local politicians have been negotiating for so long that if you offered them a cup of coffee, their retort would be: “Well let’s just look at the options without committing just yet”. Sinn Féin are the most notorious for constantly negotiating. However, one gets the feeling that if you offered any of our local parties a straight forward, honest deal that benefited them, they would be unable to overcome the fears and suspicious bred by our troubled political history and the constant deal-making.

Meanwhile, the DUP and Sinn Féin continue to haggle over the ‘choreography’ or presentation and ‘sequencing’ or timetable of a deal relating to the devolution of policing and justice. Like all the other deals down the years, this deal will not be about one issue and it will be a case of “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”.

This week, First Minister Peter Robinson apparently indicated that the DUP would not accept a Sinn Féin Justice and Policing Minister but would accept a SDLP or Alliance Minister. He also apparently signaled a willingness to see this happen sometime in the next 12 months.

Like all politicians, Robinson’s thoughts are focused on elections. So when he says sometime in the next 12 months he probably means sometime next June, after the European election. Unfortunately for the DUP, the European election is the one type of election in which one strong personality can score disproportionately well – as Northern Ireland has only one European Parliamentary constituency. Ian Paisley, of course, built his political success on the back of the European election as his former Director of Elections, Peter Robinson, will be only to aware.

Will a commitment to a SDLP or Alliance Minister for next June be enough for Sinn Féin or more accurately will this be enough to keep the DUP’s support base happy?