Saturday, 13 December 2008

Energy price cuts wrangle

AFTER its hiatus from work, the Northern Ireland Executive has been plunging headlong into adopting a series of measures, which this week coming will see the focus shift to tackling fuel poverty.

The Executive proposals are expected to be aired during Monday’s Assembly plenary session, but SDLP leader stole some of the thunder by telling media outlets that energy prices are expected to fall by 20% for gas and 10% for electricity.

SDLP Leader Mark Durkan seemed to be trying to breathe life into the proposals submitted to the Executive by Margaret Ritchie, Social Development Minister and SDLP colleague.
It is understand that their will be an Executive statement on Monday announcing that a contribution in the region of £150 - £200 will be paid into the electricity accounts of the most vulnerable in Northern Ireland. This will cost approximately £13 million.

There are no shortage of pundits, listeners and fed-up punters across all the media outlets reminding us all that despite the cuts, prices will remain higher than this time last year…
Over the weekend expect researchers and advisers to be hastily scribbling crib notes for Monday’s debate all about ‘focussing on real issues’ and caring that something gets done. Of course the weather may much warmer when it does reach those that need help during the current cold snap…

460 education jobs to go

WITH the Review of Public Administration winding it’s merry, if slightly sluggish way in shaking off the bureaucratic clutter of governance in Northern Ireland, the latest RPA announcement was from Education Minister Catriona Ruane on the Education Skills Authority.

The proposal is to merge all five education and library boards into a single entity.

With news that up to 460 jobs may be lost, the Assembly second stage debate on the Education Bill drew the ire of trade unionists and new friends of the Tories, the Ulster Unionists.

NIPSA pledged to ‘fight the case for proper staffing levels’ while UUP MLA Basil McCrea was keen to end what he claimed was a Sinn Féin centralising agenda.

McCrea claimed the ESA would be the biggest quango in Europe. He did have a pop at his DUP fellow MLAs, saying they’d adopted a ‘soft approach’ but had had assurances no side deal had been done with Sinn Féin.

Which of course leads to all sorts of confusion when the ESA comes to look at maths: five into one goes how many times. Or five into three goes how many times? The Council for Curriculum Examinations and Assessment might start thinking about setting a new 11+…for MLAs.

Euro vote already on the horizon

UP to a few weeks ago the general population could be forgiven for thinking that Northern Ireland had no MEPs, as their profile was, well they didn’t really have one (although Jim Allister has a profile for an entirely different reason).

But come May, we’ll all be going to the polls to select Northern Ireland’s representatives in the European Parliament.

And so the jostling has begun.

Opening salvoes have been fired. Jim Nicholson will be the joint Conservative/Ulster Unionist candidate, announced officially at last week-end’s Ulster Unionist Party Conference.
And now there is a good healthy row brewing over European issues. First there is the question of succession - what should happen should your MEP quit or die mid-term.
The NIO is pushing ahead with legislation to allow the MEP’s party to pick a replacement, saving all that tedious mucking about with by-elections.

The Electoral Commission’s proposal that a list of a possible substitutes should be made available to the electorate before polling day was ‘discounted’ and Jim Allister was less than pleased.
He suggested that under the government’s plans, a party (read DUP) could field a high-profile candidate and when successful they could step aside for a junior player. And he warned that this could be open to a judicial challenge. Well he is familiar with the courts after all.

Office? What office?

WITH members of the Assembly Committee of First Minister and Deputy First Minister visiting Europe for a chinwag on how Europe’s institutions are helping Northern Ireland, they walked into a ‘storm’ of criticism over the operation of the NI Executive’s office.
Jim Nicholson said the First Minister and Deputy First Minister had failed to ‘offer any political direction’ on how Europe should be handled, while Jim Allister said the situation was worse now than it had been under Direct Rule.

Nicholson also claimed that MLAs knew little about the dealings in Europe…saying one MLA had asked a question that was three years out of date. Whoops that MLA was on the committee and he was party colleague Tom Elliott!

David Cameron and the party machine

Since the last update David Cameron has been and gone, with his ‘Messiah of the New Right’ speech at the Ulster Unionist Party conference.

Cameron, reading from prepared notes received an ovation and his appearance seems to have calmed the nerves of a few UUP MLAs who may have been wavering a little on the merger.
Although heavily trailed and consistent from the platform, the underlying message was that we’re in the ‘suck it and see’ phase.

But on the day the comparison with the normal NI party conferences and the machinery of a mainstream UK political party in action was clear as Cameron’s planned events followed a tight timescale but ‘kept’ them baying for more …breeze in, couple of media interviews, few quick pictures, speech, breeze out to the adulation of star struck youngsters and smiling not so young party members.

Not so much slick as hyper efficient…were our elected representatives of all shades taking notes?

Sports calamity - we’re all doomed!

WITH briefings this week claiming that the Maze sports stadium won’t get off the drawing board it was perhaps unfortunate timing for Gregory Campbell to announce, in his capacity as Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure, that our sports stadiums fail to live up to health and safety standards.

Soccer, gaelic and rugby stadiums were named.

While a few seized on the Maze angle, what was notably absent was comment on the potential at having stadiums that failed such high profile tests.

In recent memory the tragedies of Hillsborough, Bradford and too many others showed the failings of older stadia can have horrific consequences.

Of course, the question of who will pay for the upgrading wasn’t really dealt with. This came in the week when it was floated that a Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Republic of Ireland joint bid to host the European championships was in the offing. When one noted commentator in Scotland heard this, he was heard to say “Aye Right!” Torres and Ronaldo at Windsor Park? Only if it’s safe say they!

What’s the Bill for Rights

On the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, head honcho at the NI Human Rights Commission, Monica McWilliams, delivered the Commission’s advice to the NIO Minister, Paul Goggins.

Accepting the weight tome Goggins said he would read it (and at almost 300 pages that’s a lot of reading!) and there would be a consultation.

Comments were most vocal from unionist circles (two unionists who took part in the process stayed away from the big party) criticising the domination of NGOs in drafting the proposals.
The Bill of Rights, if passed, was intended to fill in any gaps left by the European Convention on Human Rights. Critics say the Bill of Rights could become a licence for lawyers to print money… plus ça c'est la même chose it is then!