Friday, 24 October 2008

Dancing on pin heads – sure it’s our ‘thing’

The banking system of the western world might well be teetering on the brink of collapse, shares may be plunging worldwide and we may all be facing a global recession of unknown proportions, but back in Northern Ireland the political situation appears to be regressing.
In July, Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness confirmed that they had agreed a format for the new justice ministry and asked the Assembly Review Committee to compile a report on the proposals.

The pair decided that neither the DUP nor Sinn Féin would hold the post and signalled that it would be filled through a cross-community vote of the Assembly, with speculation that the Alliance Party would emerge as an agreed candidate.

The wording of the letter said that the position would be filled in a cross community fashion ‘at all times’. The DUP claim this means in perpetuity. Sinn Féin claim it means it should be filled at all times by an Assembly member for the duration of this Assembly.

RIR parade and counter parade

The Royal Irish ‘home-coming’ parade has been moved back to avoid the Sinn Féin demonstration which has also been given permission by the Parades Commission. Eirgiri, the left wing Republican organisation has announced it is planning a demonstration too. It has not applied for permission.

Unionists attend British Irish Parliamentary Body

Unionism has been represented for the first time at a meeting of a British-Irish body formed almost 20 years ago. Ulster Unionist members Lord Maginnis and David McClarty, alongside DUP MLA Jim Wells attended an historic gathering of the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary body in Newcastle on Monday. In order to address unionist concerns, the body will now be rebranded as the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly.

We understand Lord Maginess was in attendance after a slight detour via Newcastle, Co. Down.

Lord Eames in damage limitation exercise

Following reports in the newspaper that the Eames Bradley Commission on the Past was to give limited immunity to former paramilitaries who proffered information on incidents on which they had knowledge, Lord Eames, the former head of the Church of Ireland rushed to the media to dismiss the reports. The former Archbishop of Armagh said leaks about a proposed commission to investigate the legacy of the Troubles were unhelpful.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Crisis what crisis?

A number of commentators – obviously working on the basis of briefings received from one or other party – are continuing to speculate that the whole Stormont edifice might be about to come crashing down. This seems unlikely for two reasons. Firstly, as mentioned before, given the global economic situation it is unlikely that the voters of Northern Ireland will thank any party that precipitates a November election. Secondly, neither Sinn Fein nor the DUP have been publicly preparing their supporters for an election, of course that could be done fairly rapidly, but one gets the feeling if a collapse was imminent we would see more ‘sounding off’ in public.

Indeed one straw in the wind seems to the fact that while the DUP Leader has continued to issue press releases attacking Sinn Fein, the DUP in general have reined in their attacks on Sinn Fein.

The log jam remains however. Sinn Fein wants movement on the devolution of policing and justice but also wanting an Irish Language Act, a Conflict Transformation Centre at the site of the former HMP Maze and the end of academic selection. The DUP want none of these and have the ability to prevent them.

The Secretary of State, Shaun Woodward has said that unionists must not use the issue of confidence as an excuse for not agreeing to the devolution of policing and justice and greeted the fact that the Assembly Executive and Review Committee has set a five week timetable for their discussions on devolving policing as "welcome progress".

Mr Woodward confirmed that the DUP were under no legal obligation to agree to the devolution of policing and justice. Interestingly, Mr Woodward refused to take the opportunity to rule out legislating to ‘impose’ policing and justice if there is no agreement in the coming months.

Precisely how this would work remains unclear. The government at Westminster could legislate to enforce a timetable. However, this would be opposed by the DUP. It could be the case that it would be easier for the DUP to be ‘forced’ to concede the devolution of policing and justice under threat of Stormont being suspended than to ‘agree’ to it in conjunction with Sinn Fein.

A promise of legislative action at Westminster might keep the Sinn Fein leadership content in the short term and maybe a lot of hot air about the respective parades on 2 November will keep each side’s respective supporters occupied.

The ‘downside’ of such a development for Sinn Fein would be that it would mean the end of any chance of an Irish Language Act or a Conflict Centre at the Maze. Moreover, the passage of time and the development of independent entrance exams mean that Sinn Fein has increasingly already lost out on the question of academic selection.

RIR parade and counter parade

It is surely indicative of a deteriorating political environment when Sinn Fein lodge an application to stage a counter demonstration on the same day as the Royal Irish Regiment are due to have their ‘home-coming’ parade. Last year, during the 'Chuckle Brothers’ honeymoon period such a scenario would have been avoided at all costs. A combination of Sinn Fein’s desire to keep their supporters ‘on side’ and a worry that other Republican or Left Wing groups might fill the radical/confrontational vacuum have undoubtedly spurred Sinn Fein into action.

UUP approaching decision time

The postponed Ulster Unionist Party conference has been moved to 6 December. Whether the Conservative Party Leader David Cameron addresses the conference is thought to depend on whether the two parties can reach a deal in advance of December.

Sylvia, Lady Hermon, the MP for North Down has apparently spoken out in praise of Gordon Brown and Lord Mandelson which many believe is a signal that she believes she could not face taking the Conservative Whip if the UUP and the Conservatives strike a deal.

The question now facing the Ulster Unionists is whether they are willing to risk losing their only MP in the short term in order to have the potential to help to create an electoral entity with much broader appeal and influence in the medium term.

Ulster Unionists score own goal

The Ulster Unionists have ‘form’ when it comes to ‘own goals’ ie taking initiatives that backfire in the eyes of their supporters and the wider electorate. The ‘link up’ in the last Assembly with the Progressive Unionist Party – who are linked to the paramilitary group the Ulster Volunteer Force offended supporters and potential supporters alike.

The UUP, however, appeared to have turned over a new leaf when, back in July, it was announced that it had been having secret discussions over a period of months about an electoral arrangement with the Conservative Party that would allow people to vote for what is currently the main opposition party at Westminster and the party which may well form the next UK government. The media reacted very positively and Sir Reg was praised for his strategic vision.

This week the party reverted to type with the announcement that it wanted its supporters to consider giving their second and other preferences in the European election to other unionist parties – including Jim Allister’s Traditional Unionist Voice. This went down like the proverbial lead balloon, not just with UUP supporters, but with the Conservative leadership. On one level the idea that a unionist party should ask its voters to give their second preferences to another unionist party is unremarkable but in the context of on going talks with the Conservative Party and given the nature of the TUV this meeting and the subsequent release of a joint statement and photograph was simply insane.

Collapse of Northern Bank trial and the devolution of policing and justice

Sinn Fein South Belfast MLA Alex Maskey has stated that the collapse of the Northern Bank robbery trial highlights the need for "democratic local accountability over not just policing, but all aspects of the criminal justice system who came together to drive forward this bogus prosecution". He further added that “the transfer of these matters will mean proper scrutiny of the workings of these institutions and individuals, ensuring in future prosecutions take place on the basis of evidence and not because of the needs of any particular political agenda”.

This undoubtedly made good copy for him in the local media however any idea that devolution of policing and justice would prevent the Public Prosecution Service from making questionable decisions is wide of the mark. Indeed if we reached a situation where decisions about who is to be or who is not to be prosecuted are regularly referred to the Executive, public confidence in the Assembly and devolution in general would collapse.