Friday, 14 March 2008

There is more to life than government spending – and devolution

The Government spin doctors will be pleased with how the Budget was reported in Northern Ireland. A number of Executive Ministers rushed to welcome aspects of the Budget – particularly extra Government spending that will apply to Northern Ireland. In many ways the response brought home the limitations of both devolution but more notably the parochial perspective of the media here.

The Budget’s ‘extra £21m’ for Northern Ireland was trumpeted by the media – doubtless working off a Treasury press release. I failed to find anything other than a passing mention of the fact that corporation tax on small businesses is going up from 20 to 21%. Given that Northern Ireland has a disproportionate reliance on small business and is apparently seeking to build the private sector here this was a curious oversight – particularly by a media that has given acres of coverage to a simplistic campaign to lower the ‘headline’ rate of Corporation Tax (the one paid by large businesses like those who own papers, radio and TV stations) in NI.

No mention, as far as we could see, either of the abolition of the 10% income tax rate – which given our lower pay rates will have a disproportionate impact here. These measures alone coupled with the increases in tax on fuel and vehicle excise duty – Northern Ireland has a disproportionate reliance on heating oil and the car - will far outweigh any gains for NI.
Given the state of economy, however, the general opinion is that there was little else Mr Darling could do.

Paisley - the knives come out

The media and political reflection on Dr Ian Paisley’s career continued this week. After the ‘warm words’ of praise from many leading politicians and many commentators last week, the comments this week were more barbed. It was almost as if the shock of Paisley’s departure had worn off and people had had more time to consider the matter. Kevin Myers, David Adams and a number of other commentators did not hold back their criticism.

Interestingly, David Adams, writing in The Irish Times, went on to conclude that the main impact of Peter Robinson taking over from Paisley would be the demise of the Ulster Unionist Party. He reckons that a Robinson Leadership would enable the DUP to reach moderate unionist voters that and believes that this combined with a contrast between a well known, relatively young and able DUP team and the UUP will ensure the latter’s terminal decline.

And, for those that will mourn the decline of the 'Big Man' and his passing from office, here's a reminder of his European Parliament outburst against the Pope and a brief interview snippet...

11 Councils

The pressure was on – and the Executive made a decision. Faced with countless numbers of councillors who feared that they may not be given severance payments when they stood down, Ministers buckled and plucked a figure out of the air.

There was a real possibility that if a decision was not reached then the existing 26 councils would have to be re-elected next year. The re-organisation means that the current crop of councilors can avail of severance payments if they stand down at the end of the current term. The payments are likely to be approximately £1000 for every year served on a council – a sum not to be sniffed at for many long serving councilors. In addition, the lives of the current councils are likely to be extended until 2011 – so these councilors can keep claiming allowances for another 3 years – even though their democratic mandate expires next year. This should certainly keep some disgruntled DUP and Sinn Féin councillors happy.

The UUP Ministers voted against the proposal to have 11 new councils but hardly anyone noticed. Fred Cobain rushed to the cameras to condemn the ‘greening’ of Belfast. Fred obviously foresees a Belfast that continues to divide on orange and green lines for evermore. Belfast is changing surely our politics might change too Fred? Maybe a pro union party like yours could reach out to Catholics who might be Irish but proud to live in Belfast and content to live in the UK?

Anyhow, I suspect that Environment Minister Arlene Foster will appoint a Boundary Commission that realigns the City boundaries with the Westminster ones – bringing Twinbrook, Lagmore and the entire urban part of Castlereagh into the city.

Amidst all the fuss about the numbers and boundaries NILGA (the Northern Ireland Local Government Association) argued that the curtailed list of powers that were being given to the new councils compared to what had been envisaged under the Review of Public Administration meant that Northern Ireland would continue to have the weakest local government in Europe.

Ruane facing ruin?

Some would argue that Education Minister Caitriona Ruane is out of her depth but Gerry Adams insists that there is no question of her being shuffled from her position. The Belfast Telegraph is running the story that she is now back tracking on the abolition of academic selection – saying schools will ‘need time and assistance to adjust’. It is unclear whether there is any substance to this story or if the media are simply ‘out to get’ Ms Ruane.

No way into the Maze?

Speculation is gathering that the DUP have decided that they will not let the idea of a new stadium at the site of the former Maze Prison proceed. The idea has always been controversial – the Irish Football Association, the Irish Ruby Football Union and the Gaelic Athletic Association are theoretically ‘signed up’ to holding events at a new stadium.

In reality the GAA and the IRFU are lukewarm. The GAA have Casement Park in Belfast, Clones in Monghan and Healy Park in Omagh – not to mention one of Europe’s biggest stadiums at Croke Park in Dublin. Ravenhill is being redeveloped to accommodate Ulster Rugby and their heart is not in the new stadium. The IRFU have not committed to holding any Six Nations matches at the new stadium – fifty years ago when Ireland famously won the Grand Slam in their only ever clean sweep - the matches were played in Dublin and Belfast. 30,000 were squeezed into Ravenhill. Only the IFA are in dire need of new home.

This week on the Hill

While there were political rows in the media about the number of councils and the Maze stadium, proceeds in the House were fairly restrained. The debate on the Eames/Bradley Consultative Group on the Past tabled by David Burnside enabled him to get a lot of things of this chest about Ian Paisley but did not greatly add to the sum of human knowledge.

Likewise, the debate on the Report of the Assembly Review Committee into the devolution of policing and justice didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. Yes, the parties have made considerable progress on agreeing the mechanics of how it would work but no there was no progress on deciding when it would happen.

Perhaps the most telling remark came from Gerry Adams. In response to considerable provocation from the DUP about how they would block any transfer of policing and justice powers for the foreseeable future, Adams threatened to retaliate by blocking….any idea of a new stadium at Blanchflower Park. Mr Adams has been upping his profile again in recent weeks but as a gesture it revealed more about how Sinn Féin are tied into the process than anything else.

Monday, 10 March 2008

Re-shaping health

Does anyone know what the future shape of health and social care in Northern Ireland will be? Well, we hope the minister does, but we're not really sure. The department is heading out to consult on the new plans, but on Friday the people in the private and voluntary sector will have a chance to hear from leading commentators on the proposed new arrangements on commissioning and local involvement. To find out more email Simon.