Saturday, 13 September 2008

Assembly Business

The failure of the Executive to achieve anything of substance over the summer is brought into stark relief next week when the Assembly Plenary sessions return but have no Executive business to discuss. A meeting is scheduled for 18 September and perhaps the log jam will be broken then – if the meeting goes ahead. The word is that having stared into the abyss and had a bit of a rant at each other the ‘mood music’ between Sinn Fein and the DUP is much better.
Two pieces of legislation continue their on their procedural path - the Second Stage of the Diseases of Animals Bill and the Second Stage of the Presumption of Death Bill. Rumours that the latter is designed to declare the Assembly dead are not true.

Monday also sees a raft of Assembly Committee changes – mainly DUP but also some UUP. Tuesday is entirely taken up with Private Members Motions on; Neighbourhood Renewal, Executive Matters, Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder and Integrated Schools. The one entitled ‘Executive Matters’ seems to be designed by the SDLP to let off a summer’s full of frustration about the inertia in the Executuve.

Law and Order

The UUP have tabled a motion noting the levels of ‘Republican activity and violence’ and condemning such activity and supporting the rule of law, etc. This initially looked like a clever ruse by the Ulster Unionists to make Sinn Fein appear in the Chamber and endorse the police through gritted teeth – although in reality most would probably have avoided the debate or turned up and ignored the motion. The SDLP have tabled an amendment to broaden the motion and in reality everyone will probably turn up, join hands, and condemn the troublemakers.

Reality anyone?

Meanwhile away from the marbled splendour of Stormont and esoteric debates about the levels of political support for policing people in the real world were more concerned about the huge hikes in prices for electricity. Coupled with other price rises in recent months for things such as gas, the fall in house prices, the credit crunch and a slowing economy people are rightly concerned about the future. On occasions the Assembly seems somewhat detached from this reality.

Gordon Brown

The current Prime Minister Gordon Brown is to visit Northern Ireland next Tuesday afternoon. He is meeting all the party leaders including the Alliance Leader David Ford. One assumes he is going to encourage Ford to take the job of Policing and Justice to get the Assembly out of its current hole. Ford of course has been here before and is likely to demand some concrete reforms of the Assembly set up – not least the designation system.

Whether Mr Brown’s visit will produce results remains to be seen. With opinion polls suggested a Labour meltdown his prime ministerial authority is looking somewhat lacklustre.

Peter Robinson to hold back the tide

Peter Robinson strongly hinted to the press that the Executive might delay the introduction of water charges due to the economic downturn. This was a marvelous piece of media management and was dutifully reported by the press – not one of who asked him at which Executive meeting this had been discussed. As the Executive has not met for months one can only assume that Mr Robinson did this to ‘bounce’ his Executive colleagues into agreement and to ensure he gets the political credit rather than his colleague Conor Murphy of Sinn Fein.

Has Mr Robinson decided that the General Election might be in the next twelve months? He might think that it would not be wise politically to be sending out rates bills with a new water element in the months leading up to either the European election in June or any possible General Election. It is a slightly risky strategy in that if water charges are finally introduced in April 2010 it could be in the run up to a 2010 General Election.

Robinson’s main focus is still said to be Policing and Justice. Although the DUP and SF have agreed that they will not take the post in the foreseeable future, Robinson is concerned that Sinn Fein Ministers could seek to interfere by using the power enshrined in the Executive’s rules that any three Ministers can call in any Ministerial decision.

Mark Durkan gets himself in a spin

Mark Durkan has been castigated by some nationalists – including Sinn Fein representatives - for suggesting that there will come a time when the structures of the Assembly may need to be overhauled. Notably he remarked that the designation system was part of the original ‘scaffolding’ of the Belfast Agreement and that hopefully there would come a time when it would be possible to take the ‘ugly edifice’ down. The negative reaction from some quarters was so intense that Durkan was forced to ‘clarify’ or rather qualify his remarks.

Unionists had welcomed his views. It is unclear whether this was an attempt by Mr Durkan to encourage debate or whether Mr Durkan was caught off guard. The remarks were part of his speech to the British-Irish Association Annual Conference in Oxford last weekend. Everything at the Conference is supposed to be under ‘Chatham House Rules’ whereby one can only quote the speaker with their permission. So one must assume that Mr Durkan approved the report initially?

Meanwhile the Irish News is reporting what we previously speculated – that Alban Maginness might well be the SDLP’s candidate in the European elections next June. Have the SDLP resigned themselves to not getting the Minister for Justice post?

Friday, 12 September 2008

Good and bad week for Sir Reg

Sir Reg has probably been capturing the public mood in recent weeks when calling for the Executive to meet and dismissing the idea of devolving policing and justice until the Assembly proves it can exercise the powers it currently has. Likewise his remarks that the system at Stormont needed reform also probably struck the right note with the public.

He must have been disappointed when his former Ministerial colleague came out to bat for the UUP candidate in the Enniskillen by election by dismissing the suitably of the DUP candidate, the Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster because she was a wife and a mother.

One suspects it is a two horse race between Mrs Foster and Denise Coyle the Sinn Fein candidate with Mrs Foster slightly ahead?

Sir Reg will have consoled himself with the standing ovation he received at the UUP’s Executive Committee meeting on Thursday evening. One attendee said that Sir Reg’s presentation on the proposed merger with David Cameron’s Conservatives was the best he has ever given.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

An exercise in spin?

Following hot on the heels of his leader, Nigel Dodds has issued a press release denouncing any possibility whatsoever of devolving policing and justice to a Sinn Féin Minister. At one level this is marvelous spin. The DUP’s core support hear what they want to hear – a hard-line statement ruling out devolution of policing and justice. Many will fail to notice the caveat – to a Sinn Féin Minister. Given that the DUP and Sinn Féin have already agreed that the position should not initially be held be either of their parties this is an unnecessary caveat to insert – unless one also wanted to leave open the possibility of devolving policing and justice. Hence the press release also acts as a message to SF that the DUP are open to the idea and most importantly leaves no hostages to fortune for Jim Allister, the former DUP MEP to exploit.

Focus on the IRA ‘Army Council’ avoids the crucial questions

This week the International Monitoring Commission reported. It had been asked by the governments of the UK and the Republic of Ireland to report on the status of the IRA’s ruling body – the ‘Army Council’. The report gave such a beneficent version of the situation it seems likely that the former ‘godfathers of terrorism’ are so busily employed in ‘good works’ that they really haven’t had time to do anything much at all.

This was predictable enough. Equally predictable was the appearance by key figures, such as NI Secretary of State Shaun Woodward, engaging in another round of superlatives about just what a crucial thing this was. Even Gordon Brown was wheeled out to attempt to increase the political pressure and to give momentum to the idea that policing and justice should be devolved as soon as possible. Their efforts have met limited success to date. Attempting to make a political event out of the non event of the Army Council, defeated the Northern Ireland Office hyperbole section. The Peace Process has worn them out.

First Minister Peter Robinson leapt forward and somewhat inexplicably focused on the continued existence – however inoperative – of the Army Council, as a reason to still hold back on the devolution of policing and justice. Bizarrely, the DUP maintain that the word of the IMC was not enough. They need reassurance from the leadership of the Republican movement.
A cynic might suggest such an approach has more to do with political choreography than genuine opposition. There is a case to be made that as the Executive cannot successfully operate the powers it already has, devolving such a controversial area is premature. There is also an agreement that the public – despite apparent NIO opinion polling – is wary of giving these powers to local politicians. The DUP have not made these arguments but merely argued about the existence of the Army Council.

The public wait with bated breath on the outcome of crucial talks to see if DUP and SF can break the political deadlock

The above heading could well have featured in the Northern Ireland media this week and may well feature next week. Not least because local political journalists, like the Stormont politicians they study, often lose sight of the bigger picture.

In truth, many probably paid more attention to the initiative by Eleanor Gill and the Consumer Council to give advice on the ‘credit crunch’, than the crunch talks between the DUP and SF.
With fuel and food bills rocketing and the housing market in a state of flux, many have had the limitations of Stormont brought into sharp relief. Margaret Ritchie, the Social Development Minister got herself some good publicity for a new housing scheme that will help 100 families or so. More people focused on the Labour government in hope of help but the effect of his Stamp Duty holiday might benefit fewer people in NI than Mrs Ritchie’s scheme.

SDLP call for an end to designation, UUP call for end to mandatory coalition

The SDLP Leader, Mark Durkan, in a speech to the British Irish Association in Oxford called for an end to the system whereby political parties in NI fighting Assembly elections have to declare themselves as ‘unionist’ or ‘nationalist’ (or other). The system has always been discriminatory in that it means that a ‘nationalist’ or ‘unionist’ MLA is given more influence than an ‘other’.
Meanwhile, the UUP Leader, Sir Reg Empey has called for an end to the system of mandatory coalitions.

Both Empey and Durkan reckoned both had been necessary evils at the time of the Good Friday Agreement but each believed that issues could be better provided for.