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.