Friday, 18 April 2008

Cowen comes bearing gifts

When Brian Cowen, the newly elected Fianna Fáil Leader and Tiaoseach-elect arrived to meet Peter Robinson, the newly elected DUP Leader and First Minister-elect there was much bonhomie. The mood was undoubtedly helped by Mr Cowen’s announcement that companies based in the Irish Financial Services Centre can establish what are essentially ‘back-offices’ in Belfast without losing their advantageous tax breaks in the Republic. This was hailed as great news by the media in the North but, understandably, the coverage in the South was a bit more muted.

Apparently the IFSC is having great difficulty attracting staff and so the move to open offices in Belfast is more of a necessity than a charitable gesture. Its hard to believe that if there is a huge pool of potential recruits in NI that those individuals would be unwilling to move down to Dublin? Perhaps the ability to find office rental rates that are a fraction of those in Dublin and the ability to pay significantly lower wages is also a factor.

Some nationalist commentators have hailed it as part of the development of an all island/Ireland economy and some as a step to a United Ireland. It might mark a step in the former but anyone who thinks it heralds a United Ireland should ask the customers walking out of Tescos stores in the Republic whether they feel that Tesco’s presence represents a step on the road to the Republic rejoining the UK. Tesco is due to open to 101st store in the Republic as the UK presence in the Republic’s retail market continues to expand. British imperialism or economics? One suspects the later. Likewise American and other banks who are based for tax reasons in Dublin servicing clients from Belfast shouldn’t be viewed through green-tinted glasses either.

Robinson endorsed by DUP

The DUP PR machine carefully managed to get two bites of the cherry by having the party’s Assembly group elect Peter Robinson as leader on Monday and having its Executive meet on Thursday to endorse the decision. Their masterstroke, however, is the idea of having a ‘swansong’ event for Paisley at the Balmoral Hall on 30 May. Doubtless this will be a cross between a revivalist gospel mission, this is your life and a political rally. Open to the pubic apparently! I wonder who will carry the red book and do the Eamonn Andrews/Michael Aspel impersonation – surely Martin McGuinness? Better still Gerry Adams – they go back so far together.

Reshuffle specualtion continues

The media is speculating that Gregory Campbell might get the Ministerial seat when the music stops and Peter Robinson is First Minister and Nigel Dodds is the Finance Minister. Mr Campbell is believed to be on the sceptical wing of the party i.e. those who have grave reservations about the power sharing arrangement so this would seem peculiar. Perhaps Mr Robinson feels the need to have him in the tent facing out?

Fianna Fáil/SDLP back together

Last week we reported on a possible hitch in the developing Fianna Fáil/SDLP relationship – with FF considering extending its consultation period about a possible move into politics in the North. It seems that things are back on track with a romantic meal for the two parties – or rather a breakfast on Friday for 400. Outgoing Tiaoseach Bertie Ahern was guest of honour at the event, which was also attended by Minister for Foreign Affairs Dermot Ahern and other senior FF figures. The media reported that having gone this far Mark Durkan will now be expected to go all the way.

The gathering, which took place in Co. Louth between Newry and Dundalk, was a fund raiser for the SDLP – specifically for their councillors who were surcharged by the Local Government Auditor for willful misconduct. Despite the fact the event was held just over the border, the SDLP may have to declare all ‘profits’ to the Electoral Commission.

Education - no compromise, no solution

The UUP’s Basil McCrea has reignited the debate over academic selection by producing an internal Sinn Féin briefing paper allegedly shows that the party is hoping to undermine academic selection by introducing a new policy via ‘guidelines’ rather than producing a policy that would have Executive and Assembly backing. The Minister, Caitriona Ruane, clearly realises that she cannot remove academic selection via new legislation as she will be unable to get either Executive, Committee or Assembly approval to do so.

Bypassing the Assembly in such a way is bound to set a precedent. While one does not doubt Caitriona Ruane’s passionate commitment to her brief, her party must surely realise that to press forward in this fashion will create a crisis in the Assembly. Sinn Féin have in the past been quite apt in creating situations where unionists are seen to be ‘in the wrong’. However, this approach would not merely galvanise the supporters of academic selection but also those who would see this as driving a ‘coach and horses’ through the Assembly’s procedures for cross-community consensus.

Bluntly unionist politicians could take retaliatory action and the moral high ground. Employment and Learning Minister Sir Reg Empey has already threatened as much.

Monday, 14 April 2008

Fianna Fail/SDLP courtship in ‘lovers tiff’?

Fianna Fáil is considering extending its consultation period about a possible move into politics in Northern Ireland. Having essentially ‘asked the SDLP out’, and the SDLP having batted its collective eyelids, it seems that FF are sensing that the SDLP are having doubts. The truth is that the SDLP is a very loose collection of capitalists, socialists and others with very little uniting them beyond their broad nationalist outlook. Any move into another party is bound to be painful but might it be worth it if it leads to a rosier future together.

Reshuffle speculation

This morning the DUP's Assembly's party is to meet to annoint Peter Robinson as their party's leader and the Party Executive will ratify the decision next Thursday. Shortly after being elected he is to meet with Brian Cowen, who is also currently a Finance Minister. Robinson’s Deputy Leader is likely to be Nigel Dodds.

Nothing excites political anoraks more than a re-shuffle and the imminent accession of Peter Robinson to the position of First Minister will create a vacancy. Will the new FM opt for a single promotion of will he re-shuffle? Will Nigel Dodds move to Finance? Will Simon Hamilton become the Junior Minister? Will Jeffrey Donaldson move to DoE? Will Arlene Foster move to DETI? Will Edwin Poots be stood down to become the DUP Euro candidate next year? Will Nelson McCausland become Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure? Or is that just Gerry Adams’ nightmare? Who knows?

Cowen elected

Last week Brian Cowen was crowned as the leader of Fianna Fail. The Party was overjoyed to find he was unopposed and avoided an election never mind a divisive contest. A recording emerged of the Tiaoseach-elect singing ‘The town I loved so well’ which proved he wasn’t as bad a singer as most but that he should probably stick to politics. There were numerous articles commenting on how Mr Cowen had been politically charmed – always moving on from a Department before it was hit by difficulties. Others claimed that Cowen wouldn’t devote much time to Northern Ireland but then why would he? The deal is done, the power-sharing Executive is in place so why would he, or Gordon Brown devote much attention to NI. One suspects they will both have more pressing economic problems to deal with closer to home.