Friday, 28 March 2008

10,000 jobs to go?

The announcement that the Northern Ireland Housing Executive is going to axe over 400 jobs over the next few years raised eyebrows and caught the media’s attention. The union reps were duly trotted out to threaten industrial action etc but our local politicians were strangely silent. No doubt it was because of the Easter break. It was strange however that of 108 MLAs, barely any had anything to say on the subject. Could it be because decision is a Northern Ireland one? There are no callous direct rule ministers to blame.

The silence was almost complete of course because all four main parties – DUP, Sinn Féin, UUP and SDLP – are in the Executive. With perhaps as many as 10,000 public sector jobs expected to go over the next three or so years, such announcements are likely to become regular features. If the jobs are not all lost through ‘natural wastage’ then there must be a strong possibility of repeated industrial action. As the Education Minister, Caitriona Ruane, knows from her experience with the classroom assistants dispute this is not ultimately a way to win friends (or votes).

Republican denies he is an informer

Yet another member of the Republican movement who worked closely with Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams has taken to the media to deny he is an informer. Paul Hamilton, formerly a bodyguard to the Sinn Féin leader, claims that rumours that have been circulating over a number of months having been damaging to his family.

Earlier in the week, Jim McCarthy, who used to be a driver for Mr Adams and who is now the Belfast co-ordinator of Community Restorative Justice, also went to the press. The trouble with such public utterances of course is that while they may bring some relief to the individual concerned, they simply perpetuate the ‘rumour mill’ in Republican circles and indeed spread into the general public the perception that penetration of the Republican movement by the security forces is at saturation level.

Abortion row brewing

While Ian Paisley senior might be coming to end of his career as Castle Buildings (home of the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister), he returned to the Westminster scene this week. It came to his attention that an amendment to the current controversial Embryology Bill going through Westminster might bring Northern Ireland into line with GB with regard to abortion. Should this happen, the reaction of MLAs will be interesting. Abortion is a very sensitive subject. Many of our MLAs are on the social conservative end of the spectrum and take the view that they do not want abortion ‘extended’ to NI. Of course abortion does actually occur in NI society – since 1967 an estimated 64,000 women have traveled from the region to Britain to have abortions. It seems people are content to let people avail of abortion services as long as it does not physically happen here.

If Westminster were to ‘force’ Northern Ireland into line, one assumes there would be steps in the Assembly to oppose such a measure. This could be a potential headache for the Health Minister and the Assembly Health Committee. Could it be that Sinn Féin and the DUP would unite on this issue?

Ahern running out of luck?

Last week we speculated that Bertie Ahern’s luck might be running out and that his party (Fianna Fail) might move to oust him. He will have been heartened by the fact that his coalition partners in the Progressive Democrats and the Green Party have joined calls from the Fine Gael opposition for him to consider his position. Nothing unites your own side as much as been told what to do by your opponents.

Sports bodies score own goal over Maze

The Chief Executives of the Gaelic Athletic Association, Irish Football Association and the Irish Rugby Football Association have declined an invitation to address the Assembly’s Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee about the proposed stadium at the Maze/Long Kesh site – possibly frustrated by the lack of a decision on the proposal.

Some have speculated, however, that this might be an own goal - only a minority on the Committee support the Maze proposal (for example there is nobody on the Committee from the Lagan Valley constituency in which former prison site is situated) and they could easily seek to have the Committee formally oppose the proposal. On the other hand they can not stop a decision to build at Maze.

Mind you, it could well be the case that the officials now believe that the prospects of the idea coming to fruition are now so remote it is simply a waste of time even to discuss it.

‘Back channel’ allegations gather momentum

The suggestion in Jonathan Powell’s book that prior to 8 May 2007 the DUP and Sinn Féin used a third party a conduit as a ‘sounding board’ was given more coverage in the local media this week. It is now been suggested that RTÉ journalist Tommy Gorman was the conduit mentioned in the book. Some commentators think this is a ‘non story’ – it is surely the case that the parties knew individuals whom they could trust to impart their views. It would only be a story if there had been secret meetings or some form of formal process – which no one is suggesting at the moment.

Some feel that it will all be very ‘damaging’ when the ‘truth’ comes out - assuming that it will. One suspects that the matter will always be subject to ‘deniability’. Moreover, surely it would be more a case of embarrassment rather than anything more serious?

Former IRA man appointed to local policing body

The appointment of former IRA activist Sean Lynch to the District Policing Partnership was attacked by UUP Fermanagh & South Tyrone MLA Tom Elliott. The MLA was clearly incensed by the prospect of a former leader of IRA prisoners should been involved in holding the police to account for their performance in tackling burglaries, street drinking and the other day to day crimes that inflict Fermanagh. Others might marvel at a clearly committed Republican accepting such a position. The response of Arlene Foster, the DUP Minister who is also an MLA for the area, was carefully measured.

Next week on the Hill

Next week the first Private Member’s Bill is to be introduced into the Assembly, since the restoration of devolution. The Carer’s Allowance Bill would prevent the adjustment of carer’s allowance by reference to retirement pension. There is no indication of the costs of this measure and whether the Executive are prepared to back it. It would represent a ‘break’ in the convention that social benefits are the same throughout the UK. The Bill represents a ‘win-win’ for its sponsor Ulster Unionist David McNarry – if it goes through he can justifiably claim credit; and if it does not, he can blame his political rivals. Whether we shall see his fellow UUP member, the health minister Michael McGimpsey, rise to oppose a Bill which is proposed by his Party’s Chief Whip remains to be seen.

One suspects that this could be the first of many such initiatives and that it might spur the Executive into bringing forward more of its own legislation – if only to prevent MLAs from bringing forward measures such as this that runs coaches and horses through their plans and budgets.

The Executive will be seeking the accelerated passage of the Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill. This aims to extricate the Executive from the legal mess they created when they decided to appoint 4 Commissioners rather than the one envisaged under the original legislation. The Executive is apparently also likely to seek accelerated passage for legislation to appoint a Boundary Commissioner. This would happen as soon as the Minister has made a statement to the Assembly on the Review of Public Administration. The Alliance Party has expressed reservations about the use of the accelerated passage procedure but in reality as long as the DUP and Sinn Féin are ‘on board’ there is nothing they can do.

Margaret Ritchie, the Social Development Minister, appears to have very little to say about the hundreds of jobs loses in the Housing Executive. However, when she proposes that the Pneumoconiosis, Etc., (Workers’ Compensation) (Payment of Claims) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2008 be approved, she is unlikely to find many MLAs who rise to oppose this snappily titled measure – the only other legislative measure this week.

There will also be Private Members’ motions on: the Varney Review on taxation and investment; the use of former army base in Forkhill; underage drinking; international development; and the redevelopment of the Newtownards Road in Belfast.
Finally, the replacement of Jeffrey Donaldson on the Education Committee, following his promotion, by the equally combative DUP colleague Nelson McCausland is unlikely to bring much cheer to the office of the Education Minister, Caitriona Ruane.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

McGreevy murder – the problem with policing and justice

The trouble with attempting to have your cake and eating it is that the crumbs make a terrible mess. So it is with Sinn Féin. Endorsing policing at a regional level, but still playing to community reservations about how reformed the police actually are, ends up with no one being particularly happy.

Policing and justice are things that ideally one shouldn’t attempt to equivocate about. Just as you can’t be half pregnant you can’t support the police in theory, turn a blind eye to the existence of the IRA Army Council, and express reservations about aspects of policing on the ground.
By doing so Sinn Féin has caused itself two problems. Unionist politicians have found their stance to be reason enough (rightly or wrongly) to block the devolution of policing and justice. Sinn Fein have rattled the cage over this but short of bringing down the institutions there is very little they can do about it.

The bigger problem presented by their ambiguous stance is the growth of disquiet amongst the nationalist electorate about perceived ‘lawlessness’ in certain areas of Northern Ireland.
No one under estimates the difficulty for Sinn Féin, given its history, in giving its full stamp of approval to policing in NI but the public expressions of support that leading members of the party have given have not yet been enough to persuade – an understandably sceptical population – to fully engage with the PSNI to combat crime in West Belfast and South Armagh.
Perhaps only time will change things because short of Gerry Adams physically accompanying the PSNI on patrol it is difficult to see what else Sinn Féin can do to convince nationalist residents in places like West Belfast to help the police.

Likewise perhaps only time (and the ‘disbandment’ of the Army Council?) will convince unionists to agree to the devolution of policing and justice. Indeed we may have to wait until a new raft of post Troubles politicians come forward in Sinn Féin and the DUP for this to happen successfully.

Queen makes historic visit to Armagh and President courts controversy

The three day visit by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, culminating in the Maundy Thursday Service at Armagh received considerable coverage. Some commentators regarded it as the Royal stamp of approval on the Peace Process. This may or may not be the case but the fact that this visit was publicly known about – including details of her visit to Armagh – weeks in advance shows how much Northern Ireland has changed in the past ten years.

Of course there were bomb hoaxes and protests but one would have been surprised if there hadn’t been. Call me a cynic but I felt the passion of the protesters placards was slightly lost by the inclusion of their website address – somehow publicising a web presence sits uneasily with the idea of street protest? A case of Uploading the Revolution?

The crass remarks by President McAleese about the Queen only being allowed to visit the Republic when policing and justice have been devolved allowed a few unionist commentators to let of steam and undoubtedly will firm up DUP resistance to such an idea. One wonders what she was thinking – maybe she’s going to stand down early from the Presidency of the Republic and run as the Fiannia Fail candidate in next year’s European elections?

Powell revelations

Gatherings of the Powell family must be riveting! Jonathan was chief bag carrier to Tony Blair for many a year – especially on Ireland - and unlike many of his contemporaries still frequents Downing Street with its new occupant, the rather hapless Mr Brown. His brother, Charles, was similarly in the inner circle of Margaret Thatcher and John Major. A relatively unknown (by comparison) third brother Chris is apparently ‘widely acknowledged as one of the most gifted ad men of his generation’ who was instrumental in putting Labour into power in 1997.

Between them a Powell has been a key insider in all important political circles for 25 years! (Maybe they should write one big book!)

Doubtless this is one of the reasons why Jonathan decided it would be a good idea to write a book and launch it around the Tenth Anniversary of the Belfast Agreement. It has contained a number of eye brow raising revelations.

Perhaps the most notable – and the least reported has been the claim that Gerry Adams essentially accepted that the process was not going to lead to a United Ireland. This has been commented on in political blogs but has been ignored by the mainstream media. Doubtless this will be fuel to fires of the dissidents and the conspiracy theorists (and the overlap between these two groups).

The fact that Blair helped re-draft Republican statements has caused more media controversy but frankly to anyone who has been following events closely the idea that ‘the opposition’ were given prior sight of, and asked for feedback on and alterations to, key statements, is neither new nor surprising.

Likewise the idea that their were people who had the ear and trust of both Sinn Fein and the DUP who could be relied upon to ‘test the waters’ or ‘floating ideas’ with ‘the opposition’ is hardly shocking. Whether or not these were official ‘back channels’ is a pin head that some may chose to dance on for a while but frankly it is both history and irrelevant. After all wasn’t Powell himself a ‘back channel’?

Ahern running out of luck?

Bertie Ahern is a remarkable political survivor, a shrewd political operator and probably one of the Republic’s most successful Taoisígh. However, there has been a perceptible shift in political opinion in the Republic. The Mahon Tribunal, which is as dull and overcomplicated to us in the North as our ‘talks about talks’ and perpetual political crisis are to those in the South, seems to be finally damaging his position. The ‘teflon’ that he famously appeared to be coated in when wave after wave of potentially damaging revelations appeared to have no effect on his political standing, has finally worn off. Bertie and Ian might both have time to wander round the site of the Battle of the Boyne together come the summer.

Mallon calls for reform of the Assembly

Seamus Mallon, the first Deputy First Minister of the current institutions, has called for the removal of the system whereby MLAs must designate as ‘unionist’ or ‘nationalist’ (or ‘other’ or ‘centre’). The system, meant to be a safeguard, discriminates against those who do not want to identify in such ‘tribal’ terms. Finding a replacement will not be easy however.

Bill Clinton pulls out of Belfast Agreement anniversary event

Things must be complicated in the Clinton household – balancing the commitments of a world statesman and a Presidential wanna be. Hillary is struggling to overcome Obama in the race to be the Democrat nominee for the US Presidential election in November. When Bill agreed to come to the celebratory 10 year anniversary gathering for the Belfast Agreement at Queens University, they obviously both thought that she would have it in the bag by April 2008, but now that is far from the case.

Even more bizarrely, the Republicans who had seemingly no hope of retaining the Presidency six months ago are now in with a real chance. The Democrats are continuing to spend millions of dollars fighting each other and Iraq finally seems to be improving. If the Republicans can convince the electorate that it is best to stick with ‘the devil you know’ as the economy slows, President McCain could become a reality.