Friday, 2 May 2008

Bertie leaves on high

Bertie Ahern, the Tiaoseach, is actually leaving office under a cloud of suspicion caused by his failure to adequately explain his financial affairs. This has been forgotten, however, as he basks in the glory of his role in the Northern Ireland Peace Process, the Republic’s recent economic success and Fianna Fail’s unprecedented electoral success. His farewell tour reached its highpoint this week when he addressed both Houses of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington.
In an emotional speech Ahern was frequently interrupted by spontaneous applause – not least when he declared “Ireland is at peace”. It was a virtuoso performance.

Varney II

There was much disappointment last December when Sir David Varney announced that following a Review of Corporation Tax, Northern Ireland was not to be given a special dispensation. The disappointment was tempered by the announcement that Sir David was commissioned to do a further report, this time focusing on competitiveness. Some hoped he would announce some additional measures to make Northern Ireland more attractive to overseas investors.
Recently there was much speculation that his report ‘Varney II’ would be announced during next week’s US Investment Conference. Then there was talk of June. Much to everyone’s surprise it was released this week.
One wonders if it was being used to dampen down expectations around the conference. Having read most of the review it is long on analysis and short on new initiatives. It reiterates what the Executive is doing and emphasises the need to redouble efforts to reform the public sector for example.
Some might say that Varney I and Varney II are essentially ‘economics for slow learners’. Many politicians and commentators seem addicted to a ‘begging bowl’ mentality. These reports spell out that Northern Ireland is getting considerable assistance, it isn’t getting anymore, and it needs to stand on its own two feet.
The difficulty with this approach is that the Executive has so far shown little appetite for making the tough decisions required. Varney, for example, talks of privatising Belfast Port - something which all the local political have repeatedly opposed. He also talks about selling off the NI Vehicle Testing Agency, public car parks and parts of the public housing stock. Perhaps even more controversially, he calls for further public service reforms – cutting the number of public sector employees and ‘de-coupling’ NI public sector pay from UK pay agreements in order to reduce the 20% pay differential with the private sector.
This might make perfect sense from the point of view of increasing ‘competitiveness’ but it would be electoral suicide. It is obvious that the current politicians and Executive will never make such a move so is there any point in raising the issue of public service reforms, other than to simply position the UK Government to be able to highlight the Executive’s failure to address issues around competitiveness.

Caitriona Ruane under attack, again

The media have long ago lost any sympathy with Education Minister, Caitriona Ruane, but the alienation was completed this week when she called a press conference at Stormont and preceded to announce – nothing. Worryingly for the Minister, she appears to have united all the other political parties against her. Even those in the education sector who would agree with her views on academic selection are becoming exasperated with her failure to make her a decision.
Apparently the Executive is to be presented with her detailed proposals in two weeks time. Meanwhile, the Ulster Unionists have apparently tabled a motion calling for the issue to be dealt with by an Executive sub group.

Maze Stadium decision to be made by Peter Robinson

There has been a growing suspicion for several weeks now that the DUP are going to block the idea of a new stadium at the Maze. Rumour has it that the decision will be made by Finance Minister Peter Robinson. His department is supposed to be considering the Business Plan for the proposal – before Robinson moves on to become First Minister. Whether that happens remains to be seen, however, Nigel Dodds, who is expected to replace Robinson at Finance, is not believed to be a fan of the stadium proposal either.

Parades Commission to be abolished

The ‘fallout’ from Lord Ashdown’s review of parading continued this week, following the official publication of its report. Nationalists, who seemed generally unhappy with the proposals, consoled themselves with the fact that the report cannot be acted upon by the Executive until policing and justice matters are devolved.

IRA cleared of ‘corporate’ involvement in Quinn murder.

The International Monitoring Commission reiterated its previous opinion that the murder of Paul Quinn in a cattleshed in Co. Monaghan in the Republic was not ordered by the IRA leadership. However, it suggested that some IRA members, or former IRA members, may have been involved. Sinn Féin issued a statement denying any IRA involvement.

Decisions, decisions?

This month could be an interesting one. Decisions are expected on PPS 14 (the controversial planning guidance for the countryside), the Maze Stadium (see above) and the way forward on academic selection (see above). Of course ‘May’ is the month in which Sinn Féin and the two governments agreed to devolve policing and justice.

Conservatives jubilant, Labour dejected

The local elections in England and Wales may mark an important watershed in UK politics. This may have implications for Northern Ireland. The Labour Party will be very concerned about the next General Election. Gordon Brown, who has never shown great interest in Northern Ireland, will be very reluctant to devote any time or resources beyond the absolute minimum. Unionists, particularly those in the DUP, have often seemingly based their entire strategy for dealing with the UK body politic on the chance that they might hold the balance of power at Westminster. The chances of this happening, which were always extremely slim, seem to have receded across the horizon. Perhaps this will lead unionist parties to reassess their future strategy regarding how they approach UK national politics.