Friday, 18 December 2009

Parade issue unresolved…

THE future of the Parades Commission has been secured for another year with the Secretary of State announcing he is to re-appoint the Commissioners.

With parading proving to be one of the DUP sticking points over the devolution of policing and justice, there’s unlikely to be any immediate joy on that front.

And with the post-primary education debacle still not set for resolution and establishment of the new Education and Skills Authority stalled, there is a collective sense of ennui over some of the moribund political issues of the day.

In other words, 2009 is ending with little big picture progress, lots of small achievements and 2010 begins with a backlog of issues for MLAs.

And with a general election looming, there is a fear that posturing will become the default position rather than seeking progress on the outstanding issues.

But until then have a very Merry Christmas and a prosperous, Happy New Year!

Fair Faa ya Ulster-Scots

FAIR well Ulster-Scots with almost £2m spent promoting the dialect…sorry language of Ulster-Scots.

Value for money?

With the translations into Irish over at the Department of Education (including staff costs of translators) under scrutiny too, one wonders who will blink first in the game of ‘my culture needs money too’.

It is of course a worthy goal to preserve culture, traditions and the tongues ancestors used, but in cash strapped times (see Sammy Wilson for an explanation…) maybe, just maybe we don’t need to spend quite as much.

After all, if both are burgeoning languages then perhaps a year or two without dipping into the public purse wouldn’t do that much damage.

And if it does, then we’ll know they really do need support.

DUP cash payback secret

THE DUP has decided not to say how much their MPs had to pay back in Parliamentary expenses.

The SDLP, Sinn Féin and the Ulster Unionist MPs on the other hand have all divulged how much they’ve coughed up in re-payment of expenses.

Seven of the nine DUP Parliamentarians were asked to re-pay money in the wake of the Legge Review, but just how much each have re-paid has not been revealed.

One wonders why not? Conspiracy theorists feel free to fill any blanks…or call the Nolan Show.

No consensus on Troubles?

In a shock, nay a stunning moment, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee said that there was no common ground here as to how to move on from the Troubles.

To quote Homer Simpson: “D’Oh!”

Cash crises

IF the cost of preventing climate change seems high, the cost to NI plc of not devolving policing and justice could soon prove very high indeed in these cash-strapped times.

Gordon Brown has warned that if we don’t get it sorted soon the ‘generous financial settlement’ may be off the table.

Trying to save the world is comparable to the trials and tribulations of our so-called political elite.

Gordon must be pondering whether that the £1 billion bonanza promised for policing and justice could be used to save a South Seas island from devastating floods rather than thrown down the political black hole that passes for democracy here in ‘Norn Iron’.

A wee tiff and a matter of perspective

SO the year draws to a close and at this time the thorny matter of devolution of policing and justice still manages to cause a prickly atmosphere between the First and deputy First Ministers.

Viewers were treated to a double act of awkwardness when Robbo and Marty faced the cameras after the North South Ministerial Council meeting in Limavady this week.

And then…ahhhhh it’s all too boring to rehash the episode again; you all know the arguments and the name calling and the so-called issues.

But it seems that we all need a sense of perspective now and again.

The issue has become so perplexing that Gordon Brown and Brian Cowen took time out of the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen to discuss the matter.

Yep, the future of planet Earth’s eco-system and the plight of nations across the globe up for discussion; the challenges of agreeing sustainable development and the two premiers had to speak on the devolution of policing and justice for a region with a population of just short of 1.8m.

When the ice caps melt, when Strangford Lough rises to consume Newtownards, when the entire county of Fermanagh becomes a water theme park and Newry canal becomes a route for cruise liners, our grandchildren will not be asking what our generation did to combat global warming. No they’ll be asking whether policing and justice will ever be devolved.

Friday, 11 December 2009

We’re all doomed….again

THE game is up: we’re all doomed to another week of brinkmanship, party political waffling and general messing about with MLAs again indulging in incessant posturing over policing and justice.

Yep, Sinn Féin are flapping with veiled threats over the future of the Assembly, the DUP are pouting and no-one wants to blink first.

And the first nominations are in for Justice Minister. First to declare has been the SDLP who have put leadership candidate and Social Development Minister Margaret Ritchie into the running.

Rumours have also been circulating round the Big House that if the Ulster Unionists put a name forward for the job, deputy leader Danny Kennedy will be that name.

But, in a surprise turn of events the Alliance Party have said that David Ford will only accept a nomination if certain pre-conditions are fulfilled!

The descent into farce couldn’t be more carelessly plotted. Sinn Féin want a Christmas pressie; the DUP want community confidence, but seem to change what that means every few days or so; the SDLP and possibly the UUP are putting names forward that won’t get cross-community backing; and now Alliance have a shopping list…

The only way to solve this is through a community restorative justice scheme. Each MLA will have to face the voters in their constituency and the voters will be able to explain to the MLAs how much hurt and anguish the issue is causing them…and insist, nay, demand that they all get off the radio and stop spouting on about it, until such times that they are ready to play nice.

Need we remind them all that Santa is currently scribbling names on to his naughty and nice lists, so MLAs, you better be good for goodness sake.

Peerless performance

WHEN it comes to the House of Lords, casual viewers may have assumed that it is a serene haven amidst the hurly burly of the Westminster village; a place where Lords and Ladies can contemplate, seated on their padded benches, the whys and wherefores of government and maybe catch a wee doze after lunch.

Who could have guessed that it was a competitive pit where government representatives are hauled to answer question upon question upon question.

Actually it is a fairly serene place, but one Lord has been laying down a storm of questions.
Step forward the UUP’s Lord Laird who has asked hundreds of questions and even made it to the chamber for 145 days.

Nevertheless, such frenetic activity comes with a price tag. Lord Laird claimed 73,000 of the best British pounds sterling in expenses.

His rebuttal to those that challenge these costs: “People want to be represented in Parliament and that’s what I do”.

While Lord Laird prepares to ask another question or six, it also emerged what our Lords can claim for. Each Lord (or Lady) can claim £86.50 for daytime expenses such as meals when attending a sitting in the Lords. That’s a lot of chow, no wonder we see them dozing of an afternoon!

Pay now and pay later

YEP budgets were all the talk of the town. You know the feeling, it’s coming up to Christmas, the kids want the new toys, but you have to cost out the price of the a Nintendo Wii or Playstation 3 against whether the family will be able to eat in January….oh you were thinking of the other budgets?

Well that’s all right then. Here we were thinking you were thinking of taking out a new credit card as you’ve maxed out that other credit card and are up to your overdraft limit. Should your bank manager query this tactic, explain in small words of no more than two syllables…if it’s good enough for Government its good enough for me. Please don’t throw in a jibe about how as a taxpayer you own a stake in the bank, they get all huffy and start mumbling about bonuses.

The Pre-Budget Report came along with a confusing welter of give and take, some things you get now but won’t get in two years time, some things that might help, and some things that won’t. And the reassurance that all will be well as the money markets are still giving the UK a Triple A rating on creditworthiness. Isn’t that how the average punter got into a mess in the first place? Up to your eyes in debt? Just get another loan….but that’s where we started from.

To sort it all out get two economists in a room. The middle ground of where they disagree is right about where the answer may lie!

Sammy says sort it!

THE Northern Ireland Executive’s very own ‘A’ level economics expert, Sammy Wilson (well he was chief tester with the CCEA) has warned that even though we didn’t get the economic kicking from the Treasury that was feared we all need to be prepared for tough times ahead.

As if things weren’t tough enough as it is, Sammy warned his Executive colleagues that the coming 2010 Budget and spending review will mean that he as Finance minister will be demanding that belts are tightened, and there will be cuts…sorry efficiency savings.

Oh, let us take a wild guess here…there will be a row between the DUP and the UUP over the health budget in 2010.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Crisis? What crisis?

THE ever more Monty Pythonesque ramblings of the political classes on the issue of policing and justice has moved towards what could be real rumbles of crisis – mutterings of elections and rumours of war on the stump.

And to add to the confusion, MLAs have been asked to name who they would want as our Justice Minister.

To summarise: Sinn Féin wants the devolution of policing and justice as a wee Christmas present. The DUP are saying ‘no way’ - policing and justice isn’t just for Christmas. They want greater community confidence and the Parade’s Commission emasculated, or something like that.

Meanwhile, the various spokespeople from both parties have been contributing to global warming – thanks to the amount of hot air they’ve been generating on the airwaves. Once in a while the other political parties manage to get a word in edgeways too!

So we are left with the deputy First Minister saying power-sharing is unsustainable and saying that a ‘full-blown crisis’ is on the way if a deal isn’t sorted.

Cheerful chappy Secretary of State Shaun Woodward threw his hat into the ring by saying that all was well, the Justice Bill was en route to Royal Assent and that in coming weeks it would all work out.

Here’s a cunning plan that will save the DUP blushes and get Sinn Féin out of its pre-Christmas bind…Announce the devolution on Christmas Eve at about 11pm, both parties take no phone calls until well into January and on about the 15th or 16th say that Jim Allister is to be the new Parade’s Commissioner.

Speaking of Jim…

WELL we know you weren’t, but a few BBC insiders are beginning to ask why Jim is getting so much airtime. He holds no mandate any more, yet seems to be on the Nolan Show and other outlets every time a show needs someone to wind up the audience. Should he be treated like another member of the public and not be called seeking comment. Then again he is the leader of a political party…of sorts.

Now there’s a word we haven’t heard for a while…

GERRYMANDERING – a word that has been absent from our political lexicon for a while now has made a return.

Sinn Féin has accused Environment Minister, Edwin Poots of trying to gerrymander local government boundaries under the Review of Public Administration.

The Minister says that if Sinn Féin doesn’t sign off on the new councils there may be trouble ahead.

The 26 councils into 11 model has been on the table for a while now, the Minister has cried wolf a few times, as have the Shinners on this issue.

But compared to policing and justice, they have in theory until 2011 to sort this out…loads of time!

Get out clause

MLAs were reluctant to set their own pay increase…so let someone else do the job.

Within 24 hours of deciding not to debate a suggested £7,000 pay hike per MLA, the House of Lords was considering the Northern Ireland Assembly Members Bill, which would give the Assembly the option to pass off salary consideration to an independent body.

Smooth move! Should they appoint such an independent body, MLAs could then say that any pay hike was set by someone else…hands clean etc.

But, was it a coincidence that this week it emerged that some civil servants get paid more than Ministers sitting in the Northern Ireland Executive.

Howls of indignation were rather muted from MLAs. Perhaps this was because they realised that the civil servants were actually required to do some work…and they have to put up with Ministers. Surely that’s deserving of a good pay packet!

Mr Popular

TURNS out that Sinn Féin ministers are rated as being impressive. In a poll hosted by a local snoozepaper Martin McGuinness scored a 27 per cent rating, a full 20 percentage points ahead of his OFMdFM mate Peter Robinson.

In fact his closest contender in the ‘impressive rating scale’ was party colleague Michelle Gildernew (10%) with the DUP’s Arlene Foster coming in third (9%).

But the really revealing statistic from the poll was that one in 10 of respondents when asked which Minister has impressed them said none of them.

In other words ten per cent thinks our hard working Executive isn’t very impressive after all. One can but wonder how they came to that conclusion!

Mr Popular got it wrong

MR Popular, Martin McGuinness got it wrong about education. Who says so? Well party colleague Jennifer McCann says so.

Back in 2002, when McGuinness had yet to ascend to the heights of deputy First Minister, he was a lowly education minister, and was the first to propose the end of the 11+ and academic selection.

There followed polls, surveys, enough reports to account for a small Scandinavian forest, but seven years later no resolution.

During a debate in a west Belfast catholic grammar school Ms McCann conceded the party should have had something in place before formalising the scrapping of the 11+.

That could be said to come into the category of political comment entitled: “Stating the Obvious”.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Soldiers of Destiny marching north?

WILL Fianna Fáil’s hand be forced into contesting elections in ‘Norn Iron’ following Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA Gerry McHugh’s joining the ‘Soldiers of Destiny’ with six more northern nationalist politicos tipped to join its ranks?

McHugh asserts that he has found his ‘natural home’ in Fianna Fáil. Strange that a man who cast aside the shackles of Sinn Féin - stating their acceptance of policing as ‘a factor’ in his resignation -should realign with a party that unequivocally accepts the rule of law.

The Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA can now practice his politics within the realms of ‘The Republican Party’. But has McHugh decommissioned his anti-policing bias?

Is the FF leadership bothered? Nah. Hasn’t McHugh just joined some sort of FF forum in the north?

The party was quick to remind us that partition is alive and well on the island – “Fianna Fáil has no plans, at this stage, to be represented at elected-office level in Northern Ireland”.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Money, money, money

AS ABBA sang, ‘money must be funny in a rich man’s world’. With merchant bankers and financial gurus still coining it in while the workers stumble through the worst recession since the 1930s, one must wonder what the average MLA thinks of the whole sorry mess.

As they gaze from their windows in Parliament Buildings, contemplating the lives of those that elected them, there can only be one thought in their minds: we just don’t have enough money.

Come Monday, members will vote on the Assembly Commission report on all sorts of MLA money issues.

One recommendation is that MLA’s salary should rise to £48,000 and beyond – a pay hike of at the very least £5k, almost an extra £100 a week before tax. With an eye to their colleagues in other devolved administrations, the cross-party report authors obviously thought that Welsh AMs are no better than themselves, yet they get £10k a year more than their counterparts at Stormont.

Perhaps sensing the public reaction, at least two parties have moved to distance themselves from this recommendation. Sinn Féin says it clouds much of the good parts of the report, while the UUP want salaries set by an independent body.

In the rush to distance themselves, both parties have ignored the irony of their statements. For, if there had not been questions about the way MLAs conduct their financial affairs (i.e. handle taxpayers money) then there would have been no need for this report. And, consistently, independent review bodies have recommended hefty pay rises for elected representatives – neatly avoiding responsibility for those self-same elected representatives when they pocket the extra cash.

When this report comes before the Assembly chamber, one hopes that MLAs have the decency, common sense and all-round nod towards the forthcoming general election to amend the pay rise section.

And if not…well there’ll be plenty of scope for satire in the future.

Keep it in the family

IT must be nice to cuddle up in front of a nice warm fire on these cold nights with a loved one, secure in the knowledge that they’ve got you covered. Yep, all those lonely nights waiting for debates to wrap up, waiting for constituency meetings to end. All’s worth it when you know your spouse is paying you as his secretary.

And, for those who choose not to employ a spouse, sure you can always throw a few quid the way of a son or a brother to fulfil the secretarial duties.

Pressurised by public opinion, laughed at by the media, MLAs have been forced to open up their financial dealings.

One third of MLAs employ relations. But hey, they almost certainly do a good job – as none seem to have been sacked at any point. Their annual performance appraisals must have all been wonderful.

Actually therein lies the real flaw. If a spouse, brother, son or other relation fails to meet annual objectives or is guilty of gross misconduct, the disciplinary meeting could, at the very least, be awkward.

How would an MLA go about sacking a relative? Would they? The industrial tribunal would be hilarious!

New approaches to devolving policing powers proposed.

As the First Minister and deputy First Minister once again fail to get the devolution of policing and justice sorted out, it’s time for a new approach.

No longer the shuttle to London; no longer meetings in darkened rooms; and no longer the endless appearances on the Nolan Show…

Instead there are two options that need to be considered…

Firstly, ban the two of them from the media until it is sorted out. Then we’ll see who gets the cold sweats as the Westminster election grows closer. And for every week that they fail to agree, another candidate from their party will be banned from newspapers, radio and TV.

The second option is simple and clear. Get over it and get it done. No more stalling, waffling, grandstanding or appeals to some mythical ordinary man. Either you can do this or not. Otherwise collectively your constituents will grow weary and not turn out in the coming election. And that would be a horrible consequence for democracy.

Review – not likely

NORTHERN Ireland’s elected elite seem incapable of getting anything right. No seriously, you may not believe it, but they can’t agree on a thing.

For example, the Review of Public Administration (with the notable exception of some progress in the health service) the vast majority of the Review of Public Administration has hit the buffers, run aground, and generally failed to deliver one iota of savings.

Edwin Poots can’t get his story straight on local government review (how many councils and when the election can take place…try and get one right) and Catriona Ruane can’t get the education and library boards amalgamated under the proposed Education and Skills Authority.

Of course, each minister is not to blame. It’s just the other side causing the problem. The pages that include the words ‘consensus’ and ‘compromise’ appear to have been ripped from MLAs’ dictionaries.

The objective of the exercise should not be party politics when one assumes a ministerial position or other responsible post such as committee chair.

In a mandatory coalition the objective should be to agree good government, carried out through good governance and administered by impartial civil servants, helping direct public services by interpreting ministerial policies once the appropriate legislative and administrative processes are in place.

Instead we have inertia, ineptitude and plain stupidity.

It would be wrong to imply that any minister or MLA is stupid; it’s just that they insist on behaving so stupidly. One can only hope that they are not an example for the rest of our population.

Too many chiefs…

INTERVIEWED this morning on the BBC’s Good Morning Ulster, Belfast HSC Trust Medical Director Dr Tony Stevens defended his boss’s absence at yesterday’s meeting of the Assembly Health Committee. MLAs were angered that Trust CEO William McKee hadn’t come before them to answer questions on shockingly poor hygiene standards in Belfast’s hospitals. Dr Stevens (who did give evidence to the committee) argued that in the Belfast Trust they were a ‘community of leaders’ (i.e. all responsible for its operation). Too many chiefs and not enough indians methinks.


At the Assembly Health Committee yesterday, Sinn Féin’s Claire McGill was interrogating RQIA officials (those tasked with setting standards in our health service) on breadbins or rather whose responsibility it was to purchase breadbins. The officials gently reminded her that they were there to answer questions on their report into hygiene and infection control in hospitals – not hospital procurement procedures. However, Claire persisted and ensured that the issue of breadbins in hospitals was sorted. After all, there’s more to healthcare than clean wards and operating theatres. Keep asking the hard questions Claire.

Friday, 20 November 2009

We don’t need no education…

LET’S all just pack it in when it comes to education. There’s no point anymore.
The folks who hang out at Parliament Buildings can barely agree what day of the week it is, let alone sort out our education system.

The latest debacle sees claims that there will be meltdown as the legislation to create the body that will replace the education and library boards will not be passed in time. This means there will be no legislatively recognised organisation to do the mundane stuff…you know like hiring teachers, organising repairs to schools damaged by vandalism.

Of course, this, like the chaos over the post-primary transfer, is nobody’s fault. Sinn Féin say it is the DUP’s fault. The DUP say it is Sinn Féin’s fault. The UUP, SDLP and Alliance parties aren’t really sure whose fault it is, but it sure as hell wasn’t their fault!

Imagine you are a child or young person, who has teachers helping them through lessons supporting them and when needed disciplining them. On the commute to school or listening to the news with parents that child would be well justified in asking when teacher is going to instill a little discipline amongst our MLAs.

And those steps leading up to the big house….well you could fit all 108 of them on to the naughty steps. Schoolchildren can harangue the elected representatives until they agree to at least agree on one thing, just one thing before being allowed back into the playroom, sorry chamber.

No more secrets

PLANNING to throw a few quid to support your local political party? [Are you mad?] Well, should you really want to back one of Norn Iron’s political organisations you can no longer keep that secret.

Your friends, colleagues and the generally nosey will in the future be able to find out who has been reaching for the cheque book to back a political party.

Here laws differ from the rest of the UK. Donations must be reported to the Electoral Commission, but are kept secret from the public lest we spill the beans and a donor’s security is compromised. That law ends in October next year.

With the NIO expected to consult on proposed changes, the Electoral Commission asked some ordinary people what they thought…the result? No more secrets please.

You’re not very efficient

THE spat between the UUP and DUP over health funding rolls on, with Sammy ‘Former Economics Teacher’ Wilson telling hospitals they lagged behind England’s 12% increase in productivity.

Michael ‘Cheery’ McGimpsey said that the health service here had already achieved a 7% increase in productivity.

To the lay person – mere mortals not working in the Big House or health service management – these percentages must seem a bit daft. How can a hospital consultant be more productive? Quickie operations? How can a midwife be more productive? Hurry along with the labour there dearie!

Of course, Sammy was driving at efficiencies such as reducing management tiers.
But hasn’t the health service supposed to have made good progress in terms of the reforms required following Review of Public Administration – and all this at a time when the health service is under greater pressure than ever before.

Which, of course means that some might view Sammy’s comments as party political rather than an attempt to instill financial prudence in our health service…nah, none of our politicians would ever do that!

Eames Bradley? No thanks

WITH the Eames Bradley Report dead in the water, the DUP have kicked the last breath out of the report’s proposals, with a 12-page rejection of its findings.
This means that its more than 30 recommendations will now officially die off…but how many will be adopted by the four Victims Commissioners?

Many might be, but one thinks that the £12,000 payment to victims proposed will not be one of them.

Vampires! Garlic out Sir Reg – they’re coming for you!

WITH the hype around the latest Twilight movie, ‘New Moon’, reaching fever pitch amongst its teenage target audience, Education and Employment Minister Sir Reg Empey made what could be best described as a tactical faux pas in referring to young people as vampires who lie in bed until 3pm and stay up all night.

Not only was the comment regarded with derision, but the young people themselves have been on radio and television pointing out that the statement was clearly wrong.
Talk about getting the message wrong – unless his target audience was grumpy old men who regard everyone under 50 with suspicion…wait a minute! That would be the UUP then!

Friday, 13 November 2009

“It’s the end of the world as we know it…and I feel fine”

IT’S the end of days, it’s the start of days. Are we entering into another period of uncertainty on the future of the Assembly? Are we looking forward to the white heat of political debate before settling down to mature politics? Are we just getting totally fed up with politics?

Instalment 455 of the ongoing saga of the devolution of policing and justice was played out on the airwaves this week and in the Assembly chamber at Parliament Buildings.

One has to wonder whether the main actors really are attempting to prove they are caricatures of themselves.

Sinn Féin say get on with it or there will be ‘trouble’. DUP find more ‘conditions’ to restore “community confidence” and get tangled up on whether retention of the full-time reserve was part of building said confidence.

Rather than inviting the politicians on to their shows again, broadcasters should just replay the interviews from the week before. No-one would know the difference.

But, surely it’s time for the ‘major players’ to, in Belfast parlance, wind their necks in and get on with it.

Rather than running to Uncle Gordy once a week and playing ‘I can be more indignant than you’ on The Nolan Show, here’s an idea: lock four MLAs from each ‘side’ in a room, with no access to expenses forms, and release them when they come up with a way forward.

Big Mac back?

THE Traditional Unionist Voice held its party conference last week. And it was the legal eagles who were soaring with rhetoric. Not only was barrister and TUV leader Jim Allister regaling the gathered members on why everyone was wrong except him, but fellow whig and former UK Unionist leader Robert McCartney appeared.

His brief was to speak about the education debacle. But Big Mac couldn’t resist a commentary on the current situation.

For TUV applauding delegates it would be a good time to recall that Big Mac was meant to deliver a Mad Max style devastating blow to the political elites when he ran in every constituency of Northern Ireland once upon a time. It didn’t quite work out that way.

Lines on a map

COLOURED crayons are to be outlawed at Stormont. MLAs have been calculating just what way council boundaries are to fall, if the 26 into 11 equation on local government is to work out.

Edwin Poots, Minister for the Environment, is threatening to take away the all the parties’ crayons and coloured pencils and if they don’t stop their colouring in, there will be no Review of Public Administration savings in local government.

And, there will be a new council election next year when the General Election rolls round.

So far, RPA has delivered on reform in health and personal social services (well sort of). Plans to set up a new Education and Skills Authority have stalled with the Education Bill in limbo. And now councils may not be reformed.

C’mon guys! Let’s make it three elections in May – that way all you MLAs can stop worrying about legislation and reform and shout at each other until about September…oh, you’re already doing that! Sorry!

Jersey language joy?

FRIDAY the 13th and the 13th British Irish Council summit is taking place in Jersey. The theme is indigenous, minority and lesser used languages.

Attending are the First and deputy First Ministers a.k.a. Robbo and Marty.

Not that we are in anyway superstitious but, with stalled progress on an Irish Language Act and the dispute over whether Ulster Scots is a language or dialect, surely they are tempting fate trying to move on this ill-starred date and bad luck numbered meeting. These less than favourable indicators may mean there is progress.

This would of course be a stroke of ill fortune, if the First Minister and deputy First Minister have to explain to voters why they actually agreed on something…

No iceberg in sight

BELFAST’S claim to fame – apart from the Troubles – was a ship that sank. The Titanic went down with 1,000 souls in 1912, thereby forever making shipbuilding here synonymous with disaster, despite the Harland and Wolff being a world leader in the industry at the time.

The very name Titanic conjures up images of heroism and tragedy, hubris gone awry and selfishness and selflessness sitting in the same lifeboat.

But, with the imagery so strong the Titanic name has, as has oft been said, got global tourist potential.

That makes it all the more amazing that the saga of the SS Nomadic, the tender that brought well-heeled passengers to the doomed liner, is making, with the usual Northern Ireland zeal, a drama out of a crisis.

In short, the SS Nomadic was rescued from the sea’s version of the knacker’s yard, and brought back to Belfast, where it was originally built.

It has languished ever since, with funding rows and the potential for a tourism bonanza in 2012 – the anniversary of the iceberg incident – and a bill of £7m being touted to refurbish the Nomadic.

The £7m bill to taxpayers may seem a little steep, but would it be better to get it done rather than this constant uncertainty. In other words, let the Executive do something that will cost a bit, but have benefits for all.

Harmony ends at NIMIC

THE Northern Ireland Music Industry Commission board has broken up in disharmony. Whether anyone will really notice remains to be seen, but it is an example of good work gone awry.

Set-up in 2001, the Commission managed to showcase some local acts at high-profile events such as festivals in Texas and Northern Ireland music nights in London.

But, in its eight years did it propel any local acts to global recognition? Did the Arts Council and Invest NI involvement actually get the world rocking to the ‘Norn Iron’ beat? Or more to the point, did Terri Hooley achieve more for local music in a few short years in the late 70s? In other words is a motivated individual better than a board or commission?

The Undertones, Stiff Little Fingers, Van Morrison, Snow Patrol, Ash are names recognised throughout the UK and in some cases globally. So, exactly how did a Commission help these talented acts? And, how did Invest NI hope to measure ‘job creation’ through music? Sound engineers, lighting experts yes, but the distorted guitar lines and thrashing of drums are not easily reflected on a spreadsheet.

What we can’t wait for is the Public Accounts Committee investigation with evidence direct from the mosh pit!

Friday, 6 November 2009

Double trouble at the Big House

SIR Christopher ‘Hatchet Man’ Kelly has brought his steely eye upon the Commons expenses ‘scandal’ © Daily Telegraph.

And while mortgage shenanigans have been outlawed, moat cleaning and duck houses have been declared expenses non gratis. Kelly also said double jobbing must end.

Which has left a number of difficult decisions to be made...Will the First Minister declare for Westminster? Will Gerry Adams pack it in as an MLA? Will Alasdair McDonnell who has ambitions to lead the SDLP continue as MP for South Belfast?

The confusion deepened when this week Sinn Féin’s north Belfast MLA Gerry Kelly declared that he is to stand for Westminster.

Either Kelly (the Gerry one) has written off his chances to overcome Nigel Dodds 5,000 plus majority and is only running for the sake of form; or he really thinks he can win it and doesn’t really like being called junior anything let alone junior minister.

But Kelly (the Sir Chris one) has given MLAs a partial get out clause. MLAs who are victorious in the General Election will be able to hang on to their Assembly seat until the 2011 Assembly poll…thus being able to earn a wee bit extra cash before settling for one mandate.

Rolling on and on

THE devolution of policing and justice saga has gone on for so long it nearly qualifies as a biblical epic...the Israelites wandered in the desert for almost as long as it takes Northern Ireland’s politicians to agree on devolution.

The only thing that has gone on longer is the education debate, which would qualify for an entire book in the Old Testament.

But this week the new PSNI Chief Constable (who knows a thing about Biblical matters) said the financial package promised by Gordon Brown was enough to be going on with.

At the same time Sinn Féin were saying that they were really, really annoyed and that the DUP and British Government were playing silly games, and that the DUP were looking over their shoulder at the TUV.

Well, sure begorrah I be sorry!

SPEAKING of the TUV…and we know you weren’t and you certainly weren’t in Irish…they’ve apologised for calling Gaelic a Leprechaun language in a press release…

Well that’s nice of them…but party vice-chair Keith Harbinson has said that the furore over name-calling has taken away from the row over expenditure on Irish. The language debate…it hasn’t gone away you know!

Harbinson said it was a ‘childish mistake’ to use the term ‘leprechaun’. Politicians admitting to being childish – whatever next?

Bye Bye Carmel

IT could be the first PR dominated selection battle, after long-standing south Belfast MLA Carmel Hanna has said she is stepping down from the Assembly.

It has already been widely trailed in the media that two candidates are seeking selection: a former Belfast deputy Lord Mayor and a PR supremo.

Who will have the better press release?

North West – No says the Assembly

THE Sinn Féin MLA Martina Anderson spoke passionately in the Assembly about making the North West officially an area in need of special economic interest.

After a long and boring point scoring exercise in the Assembly (in other words like every other Assembly debate) it was decided that the Assembly couldn’t back this.

Among the reasons not mentioned were: it has an airport, you can fly in aid like the Berlin airlift when the Glenshane Pass is snowbound; you used to nip over the border to get cheap petrol, now you’re not so happy; and finally…when you get passport control at Magherafelt set-up, you can claim to be really apart from the rest of Northern Ireland and not just pretending to be.

Right stuff

IN a shambolic voting debacle the unionists got their ayes, noes and maybes all confused during a debate about the Bill of Rights.

An arcane Petition of Concern also backfired on nationalists.

For those of you who could care less – i.e. most of the population – a debate saw the unionist motion fall, but not fall, a PUP amendment sort of pass, but not really and a petition of concern disappear somewhere.

Still, all lively stuff for political anoraks and the Bill of Rights consultation, once again, going nowhere quickly.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Taking a break from politics...not a chance

THE elected representatives have been taking a wee break from Parliament Buildings this week; some calling it the half term break, others calling it the Hallowe’en Holiday.

Of course, it’s a nice synchronicity that many schools are off for the week. But, it has not kept MLAs and MPs off the airwaves. With no Assembly debates to be taking part in, the average politician has had to resort to the default position of trying to garner what coverage they can elsewhere.

McDonnell makes it a two-horse race

THE SDLP leadership contest actually became a contest this week when South Belfast MP Alasdair McDonnell threw his proverbial hat into the ring.

So until February, SDLP members and MLAs can be expected to face torrents of ‘me, me, me’ from Alasdair and Margaret Ritchie.

Methinks that whatever the outcome it’s a bit of a masterstroke. After all the SDLP were struggling to get a voice between the “He said that I said” pantomime between the DUP and Sinn Féin.

With the outcome of the leadership contest being decided just 15 weeks before an anticipated Westminster poll the SDLP will have at least the benefit of early exposure.

Parades pantomime

JUST when you thought the policing and justice debate was on safe ground, the rows broke out again. Yeah, the sunny disposition following on from Brown readying to hand over £1bn soon had clouds cast over the hesitant smiles.

With Christmas barely around the corner the, parties will have to remember that Santa will soon be drawing up his ‘naughty and nice’ list.

This time the rowing parties (DUP and Sinn Féin) contrived to find a row about parades.

The so-called Ashdown review of parades was subject to accusations, counter-accusations, sabre rattling and plain simple name-calling.

An impartial observer can draw only two things from the posturing and posing.

Firstly, the devolution of policing and justice will happen at some stage. Secondly, the rowing parties have a grudge against the radio listeners of Northern Ireland who they consistently expose to drivel. Yes, drivel. Unadulterated drivel. What other explanation can there be for two sets of people to contrive to disagree about everything.

As shadow foreign secretary William Hague reminded the Ulster Unionist/Conservative collective bash last weekend, Norn Iron isn’t the centre of the universe as proven by ‘Billy’ Gallileo and ‘Sean’ Copernicus some time ago.

Gregory and the death penalty call

DUP MP Gregory Campbell believes the public want criminals put to death. Well, to be fair only serial offenders who commit the worst crimes – presumably murder.

Speaking in a House of Commons debate calling for a global ban on the death penalty, Campbell said that with the right legal structures the hangman’s noose should be readied…okay he didn’t specify hanging as the right method of state execution.

Which leaves one to ponder exactly which method he would prefer to see used; are there particular Northern Ireland methods?

Death by boredom after listening to more half-baked radio debates.

Eschewing the cold

WITH the dark nights upon us, and the chill winds of autumn as stormy harbingers of winter to come, there’s nothing better than planning a trip to sunnier climes.

Somewhere with sand and sunshine? Perhaps Libya? Jeffrey Donaldson, Nigel Dodds and a couple of others are off to oil-rich, recently internationally rehabilitated state to try and secure compensation for the victims of the IRA.

The thawing in relations between Libya and the UK has made this possible, but there is nice underlying story.

As well as trying to lift millions from Libya’s oil-funded ATM for victims, some of the cash is to be allocated towards a fund to promote peace and reconciliation.

Jeffrey is the MP and MLA for Lagan Valley. There used to be a plan to turn part of the Maze prison site to a Troubles history, reconciliation project. That was around the same time as plans for a Maze multi-sports stadium.

Perhaps there is a cunning plan afoot to administer the Libyan fund from a ‘Loyalist’ H-block on the site…

Electoral fraud – an encouraging sign

THE Chief Electoral Officer this week revealed that there were 49 cases of electoral fraud during the European election.

The fraud centres around allegedly forged doctor’s signatures to allow voters to cast postal votes.

This is a most encouraging sign. Northern Ireland’s electorate has been accused of increasing apathy – and indeed laziness – as turn-out decreases on each polling day.

No longer can the voters be accused of apathy. They’re sitting at home watching Jeremy Kyle and listening to Stephen Nolan, but prepared to use all means possible to vote apart from stepping outside the door. Apathetic no, lazy…yes!

The other explanation is that somewhere, someone was seriously deluded if they thought 49 votes were going to change the local European election results.

Start a blog!

IT’S now time to start a blog. No seriously, start a blog. Councillors in England’s Somerton Town Council have resigned after a blogger called them names and criticised their work.

The council will now have to stage elections.

Just ponder that for a moment…a blogger using his right to free speech and waffle on the interweb has caused the collapse of a council.

A motion was passed describing ‘impossible working conditions’ and several of the burghers of Somerton resigned.

Could a blog be used to collapse a council in Northern Ireland? Could it even be used to tumble Stormont? That would be possible if our elected representatives weren’t so thick skinned. Few of them could ever be described as the sensitive type.

Are Jeffrey and John O’Dowd getting appearance fees?

GIVEN the amount of airtime given to a certain cadre of politicians, one has to wonder whether Jeffrey Donaldson and John O’Dowd are getting appearance fees from the BBC.

This week the dynamic duo, ably assisted by Gerry Kelly and Gregory Campbell, seem to have been permanent fixtures on the Nolan Show, rehearsing the same arguments.

And in an entire week the listeners have learned nothing new, nor have they changed appreciably the views of the listeners.

We fear for Nolan’s listening figures. If this keeps up it’ll no longer be the biggest show in the country….it’ll be the most boring show in the country instead!

Sunday, 25 October 2009

We Will Rock You!

“BUDDY you’re a boy makin’ a big noise, playing in the street you gonna be a big man some day…” so go the opening lines of the hit Queen track ‘We Will Rock You’. No doubt the vast majority of our 108 MLAs will have hummed along to it at some point, and to the track by the same band ‘We Are the Champions’ after some election victory.

But how many have sung Queen songs to packed concert halls – even with an orchestra!
Now Freddie Mercury/Queen tribute singer Harry Hamilton wants to become a Ulster Unionist MP…and why not! Serenading Westminster with Queen tracks like ‘Play the Game’ when an MP is out of order; or ‘Bicycle Race’ to promote sustainable transport; or a ‘Kind of Magic’ when Government gets things done; or ‘Radio Ga Ga’ when debating an OFCOM report; or even ‘Hammer to Fall’ when the speaker calls order.

It would at least boost viewing figures for the Parliament channel and could catch on here at Stormont.

Michael McGimpsey could deliver speeches in the less than cheerful tones of Leonard Cohen, or when he is feeling that sounds too cheerful, he could give us his best Morrisey impersonation.

Peter Robinson’s strident calls could be to the tune of Snow Patrol as he always wants to boost the local economy, while Mark Durkan could record a really, really long concept album to a Pink Floyd backing.

Now there are obvious comparisons that have been made about a certain deputy First Minister and one half of Simon and Garfunkel (and it’s not Paul Simon).

But the whole contemporary musical thing begins to fall down at the thought of Rev William McCrea delivering a speech to one of his best selling Gospel tunes…no democratically elected institution should be forced to undergo that!

Sir Reg tells Peter how it is!

ULSTER Unionist leader Sir Reg Empey told the first minister on Saturday that there would be no “back room deal” on policing and justice. Oh yes … and the executive is a “four party coalition”. He had strong words for the education minister too – “Caitríona, schools are not meant to be a battle ground for class war and narrow ideological prejudices”. Fighting talk from the UU leader who was addressing the party faithful at their annual conference in Belfast.

Just back from Washington and talks with his new best friend US secretary Hilary Clinton, Conservative deputy leader William Hague provided the warm up act. Mr Hague used the first part of his speech to focus on Northern Ireland - Tory-UU link up good for the union; sectarian politics bad thing; political double-jobbing in NI to end; Presbyterian Mutual members let down; no more historical inquiries.

Hague who is also shadow foreign secretary then turned to the bigger picture – Westminster, Europe, the World. Yes, there is a world outside ‘our wee’ country.

The punters (for the most part) liked what they heard. Whether you love or loath Hague’s politics, its difficult not be seduced by his oratory.

Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to stay around for Sir Reg’s barn stormer. Constituency business in Yorkshire beckoned.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

The cost of Policing and Justice

THE man who, while Chancellor of the Exchequer was associated with financial prudence, is preparing to write a fat cheque for Policing and Justice. After interminable Downing Street appearances from Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, the Prime Minister Gordon Brown finally caved in…or did he?

Rumour has it he was threatening to charge the dynamic duo rent, if they popped in for another week of negotiations.

But, with a letter and a Parliamentary statement, Mr Brown’s offer is on the table…£ 1 billion to be precise.

Mr McGuinness was looking particularly chuffed and even the First Minister’s face was showing the faintest trace of a smile.

Mr Robinson did, of course, want the offer ‘Cameron-proofed’. The Conservative leader gave that reassurance.

So with the cheque all but ready to be deposited into the coffers of NI plc, Mr Robinson is running out of ‘confidence-building’ measures to delay on.

He must, however, have been reassured to find that TUV leader Jim Allister’s claim that the PM’s cash offer is really a loan has been scotched by the NIO. Apparently HM Treasury aren’t looking for it to be repaid (imagine the interest payable on £1 billion!)

Barristers stare poverty in the eye shocker

BARRISTERS in Northern Ireland are threatening to strike over pay-cut threat.

Poverty stricken barristers are faced with the horrible prospect of having to give up north Down mansions and leafy suburbia detached residences if Government plans to cut chunks out of the legal aid budget.

If such a thing were to happen, the poor downtrodden bewigged ones say they may form picket lines, whistle the Internationale and come over all Trotskyite.

After all, they claim, only a few of them earn six figure sums, still fewer have become millionaires in the enquiry frenzy, and they even have to pay for their own wigs.

If they don’t get top dollar for cases they may abandon criminal court for the more lucrative civil and judicial review merry-go-round.

Which, given the education mess around academic selection, means they can still coin it in - challenging the grammar schools’ new entrance exams.

If you want to see the list of the top 100 paid counsel in 2007/2008 click here (the lowest paid counsel got £37,496 and the highest paid got £716,915 not including VAT)

When is an Assembly answer not an assembly answer?

PATSY McGlone was getting his knickers in a twist over the amount of money spent on consultants by Executive departments, and the cost of the Review of Public Administration.
Imagine his surprise when Jonathan Craig asked a similar question and got a different set of figures altogether. The difference was about £10 million, no small amount.

So Patsy was right to get his knickers in a knot…

Was it just a ‘simple accountancy error’, or was the wrong amount put in the wrong column? We may never know, but department officials are said to be considering asking a consultancy firm to investigate…

That’ll be the full allowance please!

A LOT of MLAs seem to have had an unerring knack of claiming their maximum expenses entitlement.

It takes an almost unimaginable amount of financial dexterity to know going into the final weeks of the accounting period that you’ve claimed almost exactly the maximum amount allowed.

Assembly Director General Trevor Reaney was quick to point out that all the claims were within the rules and had been approved. That’s all right then…

The flip side of this is that as MLAs are so financially capable in claiming their expenses, surely they can sort out NI plc. If we just tell them it’s an expenses claim, they’ll have the economy whipped into shape in no time.

Friday, 16 October 2009

While the ministrations and machinations went on…

WHILE the ministrations and machinations over policing and justice went on, the US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton touched down with much fanfare.

With the singular failure of DUP and Sinn Féin to have an agreement in place Hillary had nothing to announce or endorse, so was left to gently say, keep going, you’re all doing well…

The hints about economic investment and task forces and forums were made…but then that seems to be a regular theme when the US is involved.

This visit also saw the first live blogging of the event, Twitter updates, live coverage of the Assembly on the tele, and more comments online than for any other political event other than elections.

So, those stuck in the office were able to follow events under the catch all of ‘doing research.’ Those privileged to receive an invitation to the appearance of Hillary at City Hall were just stuck.

Yep, the schedule of the visit had been completely knocked off track by the meeting with the ministers first thing.

Now, as there was no agreement, no final cash settlement, no answers to pertinent questions, it begs the further question: what were they actually talking about?

“Was your flight okay Hillary?”
“Very fine, thank you!”
“The hotel room nice?”
“I’ve stayed there before, so yes, thank you”
“Want a coffee?”
“Yes, please – now are you boys going to play nice?”
“Yes, certainly Hillary…at least till you get on yer plane, we’ll be the very picture of statesmen!”

Health service in meltdown (again)

BED closures; ending of in-patient surgery; no hot meals for visitors…Northern Ireland’s health service was this week portrayed as being in meltdown, with swingeing cuts being the order of the day.

Health and social care services represent the biggest cost to NI plc so any percentage based cuts are bound to have a proportionately larger effect.

One can’t help but wonder whether the health service is a victim of its own success.
More patients than ever are receiving better care, the general population is living longer, long term conditions such as asthma and diabetes are receiving better services, and cancer survival rates are improving.

All of which cost more.

So while the Stormont health committee rants at unions, managers and anyone else, the directive should be to stop being so good at your jobs! Yes, all you doctors and nurses out there – you are obviously letting the side down by helping patients live longer. This is a singularly poor approach to managing the budgets.

And, as for managers and administrators, the chief executive of the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust William McKee told the health committee this week that even if he fired everyone in administration it wouldn’t save the £93m that is needed in efficiency savings over the next three years.

Still it’s the thought that counts!

Peelers, politicians and the Treasury

IT is with a complete sense of boredom that we report on another week without agreement on the devolution of policing and justice.

With thousands of air miles clocked up, the not-so dynamic duo of First Minister Robinson and deputy First Minister McGuinness continued their shuttling back and forth between Stormont and Downing Street.

It has now become impossible to count the times that devolution of the said powers has been close…Queen’s University, Belfast are opening a Masters Degree in Maths based around the probability theory on just how many times two people can talk about the same bloody thing. This will complement their advanced probability on the Executive ever agreeing on education…

Meanwhile Robinson and McGuinness were taking the deal to their parties. The former was consulting with ‘Executive colleagues’, demanding clarification and the wonderfully titled ‘Tory-proofing’. The latter’s party colleagues have all said no problem to the cash deal and plan.

While most of the population are thoroughly bored with this, it must be a matter of vexation for the First Minister. If he holds out a wee while longer, he can present himself as a tough negotiator…albeit one who takes a very long time to negotiate!

He wants to be able to fend off TUV attacks on the devolution of policing and justice…the old unionist ‘we’re harder than you are’ argument.

But therein lies the rub. Should Sinn Féin feel that they are being given the runaround, the temptation for them will be to collapse the Assembly and hold an election coinciding with the Westminster poll.

With the unionist vote split (at least) three ways in most constituencies, McGuinness must fancy his chances of gaining the First Minister monicker and ditching the deputy tag.

Meanwhile boredom strikes even the political hacks…

Expensive MLAs

SINCE the summer it has been a consistent theme – elected members expenses. Headlines shout scandal; radio phone-in shows have callers incandescent with fury…but please remember that it was all within the rules.

Yes, the refrain that is almost consistent, from MPs through to MLAs is that the expenses they claim were approved by the ‘office’ and that they did not break any rules.

Of course, the bankers who reaped the massive bonuses weren’t breaking the rules. The super rich who use sophisticated tax avoidance schemes aren’t breaking any rules.
But, just because you can claim something doesn’t mean you should.

MLAs are, of course, elected to represent their constituents. They hear their constituents woes on an ongoing basis - mounting debt, struggling to claim benefits entitlements, not getting the public services they deserve...

And, they complete their expenses forms all within the rules.

Thankfully this is a cross-community effort. All shades of political hue are grabbing their expenses claims to the max.

In fact, one might surmise that this has the hallmark of a wonderful scheme by the Equality Commission…

Except for the fact family members don’t have to face the rigorous interviews the rest of the civil and public service must tackle, nor fill in the ‘what community…’ declaration.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Regulation & Quality Improvement Authority?

It would seem that the RQIA, which is charged with, among other things, encouraging improvements in the quality of of health and social care services in Northern Ireland, has a few issues with the quality of its own service delivery.

This frustrated blogger tried phoning its main number and got a "this number is currently unavailable" message.

On a second attempt, the caller was invited to leave a message on Vodafone voicemail.

Hurray, on the third attempt a real person answered the phone but the switchboard operator was unable to transfer calls. She helpfully suggested that she could email the person the caller was trying to reach. Hmmm....

Saturday, 10 October 2009

There’s no justice – there’s just us

ULTIMATELY when devolution of policing and justice comes trundling down the length of verbose negotiations, party gains, party losses, compromises and confusion, the political classes will gaze upon it all and realise that they’ve managed to gain another headache.

This week the First Minister and deputy First Minister have been doing their bit in destroying the climate with flights back and forth to London, not to mention bringing the PM here.

Finally after a week of ‘intense negotiations’ it finally looks like it will be agreed.

Peter Robinson was, as seems to be his permanent posture, cautious. Martin McGuinness, on the other hand has the beginnings of a permanent grin.

They may not be working together but they’re growing into a double act.

But it is a double act of despair? Should McGuinness not be able to ‘deliver’ on a policing and justice agreement by Christmas, Sinn Féin will look impotent. The perception then: A DUP “win”

For Robinson, knowing that devolved policing and justice is inevitable, the budgetary agreement and general concept has to be in place before Christmas. This will give the DUP a clear run to the general election, arguing hither and thither about the minutiae of the legislation. If the First Minister can’t get some of his concessions before Christmas…the perception then: A Sinn Féin win.

They’re stuck on the horns of a dilemma. Should they for once depart from a Downing Street meeting together, they can mutter to each other….”There’s no justice…there’s just us”.

Operational decision

SHURELY shome mishtake. First Minister Peter Robinson declared that one of his non-negotiable terms for devolving policing and justice was the retention of the full-time reserve.
Surely the DUP will have realised through its membership of the Policing Board that the Chief Constable will hold primacy in terms of operational decision-making.

The Board may approve or reject such decisions, and can veto the actions to a certain extent, but have that self-same board ever permanently stopped an operational decision. Tasers? Closure of bases?

The devolution of policing powers of course means there will be a Policing Board, an Assembly Committee on Policing and Justice, and District Policing Partnerships.

And that means there will be no actual policing done. All the senior officers will be at meetings, and all the junior ranks will be helping prepare the information for the senior officers.

Which of course explains why Matt Baggott and his creed of community policing won him the appointment: his message to the community will be ‘go police yourself, we’re in a meeting.’

Comedy is the art of timing

THE creation of a Department of Policing and Justice should in theory just mean moving NIO civil servants to an Assembly department. Couple of weeks work?

Not a chance! It’ll work out at about two years, which is about the timescale for getting rid of the Department of Employment and Learning.

Which takes the Assembly most of the way through to a 2011 Assembly election and the ending of the interim period for a Minister for Cops and Courts. Working out D’Hondt after that election will be fun!

I fought the law…

THE police are much in evidence around Parliament Buildings as any visitor knows. Courteous and efficient, they patrol the grounds, are present at the security checks and are an amiable, but quiet presence.

Their professionalism comes at a price though: £413,000 per year to be exact.

A far cry from the days when police officers were only there to annoy Sinn Féin.

True blue Reg

BILLED as a momentous occasion, Ulster Unionist supremo Sir Reg Empey mounted the steps in Manchester to address the Conservative Party conference about why his party’s alliance with Conservatives is good for the Union.

Coining new phrases – such as pan-UK Unionism – and speaking with unusual passion - Sir Reg managed to stir some of the Tory faithful in the hall.

But his speech on the Union was a wee bit undermined by the fact that it concluded the session on ‘Great Britain’. Memo to conference organisers…it’s called the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Dealing with the devil

AN unholy alliance was alleged between Ulster Unionist Health Minister Michael McGimpsey and the Trade Unions by Iris Robinson.

Mrs Robinson said the left wing unions were in league with Satan….sorry Michael McGimpsey, over opposition to the health cuts.

The Health Minister had complained that the Northern Ireland health service was under funded compared to the rest of the UK.

With beds being cut in hospitals, A&E departments closing in rural areas, and mothers who give birth to be shown the door hours later, the unions are a wee bit upset.

Mrs Robinson said she would not be “lectured” by the trade unions, declaring: “I will not be questioned about what I do as a public representative. But you have come here today singing the same song as the minister has sung."

Mrs Robinson of course has her own song she prefers to be serenaded to…Simon and Garfunkel’s rallying call for her to act:

“And here's to you, Mrs. Robinson, Jesus loves you more than you will know, God bless you please, Mrs. Robinson, Heaven holds a place for those who pray”

Sort of says it all.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Love is all around us…

And so the feeling goes….away. The public spats between the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland/this wee country/region/province/failed statelet/occupied Ireland/here (delete as appropriate) seem to becoming infectious.

In the Health Committee on Thursday, Iris Robinson forgot she was no longer the Chair and ended up having ‘a robust discussion’ with Deputy Chair Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Fein, who was chairing proceedings in the absence of the new Chair Jim Wells. At least John McCallister can have a rest from the ‘robust discussions’ he and Iris used to have.

Welcome Gordon, welcome Hilary, welcome one and all

ROLL up, roll up! Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends! We’re so glad you could attend! Come inside and see the marvellous fighting politicians. Come inside and see Peter and Martin duke it out in a most wondrous verbal spat.

Welcome Gordon, here you’ll see the legacy of your erstwhile mate Tony. Could the ghosts of electoral platforms past be pulling you to claim conclusion to the never-ending saga that is Northern Ireland.

Welcome Hilary - so glad that Shaun was able to tell us all last that you’re coming back. Just remember to bring those dollars for the carnival stalls that will keep us all in jobs old and new; but watch out for those hucksters who’ll try to turn your head with their amazing sleight of devolution hand….

I fought the law, and the law won!

AS The Clash so memorably sang in their cover of the Sonny Curtis song, ‘I needed money ‘cause I has none; I fought the law, and the law won’; so our political classes have been struggling with the concept of devolving policing and justice when Treasury purse strings are tied tighter than ever.

But wait…there is a bank of Yanks waiting to plough their investment into our ‘wee country’ as soon as these powers are devolved to Northern Ireland.

According to the logic of Shaun Woodward, if policing and justice is devolved, hordes of US investors will come storming across the Atlantic, wallets stuffed with cash ready to set up shop in every hole in the hedge. As soon as PSNI officers can gaze affectionately upon their new masters in Parliament Buildings the world will be set to rights.

Our ever beneficent Secretary of State is so confident that he told the Labour conference that US Secretary of State Hilary ‘I’m not just Bill’s wife’ Clinton will be gracing us with her presence.

So, let’s get this straight. This week the Conservatives are holding their party conference in Manchester. It just so happens that Gordon Brown is be coming across to Northern Ireland this same week to ‘bash some heads together’ and get devolution of policing and justice well and truly sorted. Of course, that won’t steal any headlines from the Tories…

And, should Hilary rock up with investment in hand a week or so later, who’s going to be grabbing headlines again.

Stage management? Chance would be a fine thing.

He said this, he said that…

MARRIAGE counselling can be a tricky moment in any relationship. Before the rowing partners accept that the other has a point, they must vent their spleen. Before they hug and make up each must air their differences. Each must honestly say where they think their other half has gone wrong.

At least most couples have the decency to air their squabbles in private.

Not so the likely lads that make up the wonderful First and deputy First Minister partnership.
Their private spats make public headlines. First Peter moans at an event in September. Then Martin moans after their US trip. (The old marriage counselling trick of getting the couple away from the scene of disagreement seems to have only briefly caused a kiss and make up scenario.)

And, now, with the spectre of Gordon coming across to cast his beady eye on the situation, will the rowing partners finally see that divorce is a step too far? Will they look each other in the eye and agree to try and work through their issues?

Stay tuned for more tension in the soap opera that is currently passing for politics.

Cheap at half the price

SURE it’s only an election…

While the NI Executive is rowing about the cost of devolving Policing and Justice, it has emerged just how costly elections can be!

The Electoral Commission in Northern Ireland has released the figures for the Euro poll.

And one cannot help but wonder whether the Alliance Party is ruing the price tag of more than 43 grand on defector Cllr Ian Parsley…

The DUP coughed up almost 14 big ones more than Jim Allister’s TUV in their campaign, while Sinn Féin spent £13,000 more than the SDLP.

But…the Ulster Unionists and Conservatives submitted separate returns for Jim Nicholson. The UUP said they spent £34k on Nicholson, while the Conservatives said they spent more than £60k.

Meanwhile west of the Bann

ARLENE Foster is reported to be delighted to be picked as the DUP’s candidate for Fermanagh and West Tyrone Westminster seat currently held by Sinn Fein’s Michelle Gildernew.

Michelle is allegedly reported as saying: “We used to be such close mates on the Executive I can’t understand why we are arguing about a Westminster seat with three people living in the area.”

Dagger eyes across the Executive table…situation normal then!

Expensive expenses

IT must be almost six months since an expenses scandal ‘rocked’ (copyright Daily Telegraph) the political classes.

The Northern Ireland Assembly has published what our MLAs have been spending taxpayers’ money on.

To say the least it shows a lack of imagination if the funkiest expense was a walnut desk….where were the expense claims for duck houses or the pruning of hedges.

MLAs...please try harder in the future to come up with ridiculous expenditures to keep indignant leader writers in a job.

Monday, 21 September 2009

This is ground control to Major Ian….

Friday’s post ‘Libya and irony…important lessons’ missed the biggest irony of all. Whoops…

While the DUP condemned the decision to send PSNI officers to Libya to train its police as “totally inappropriate and offensive", it was revealed that Ian Paisley Jnr was among those who’d signed off on the decision. According to Mr Paisley, sending local police officers on the Libyan jaunt was good for gathering intelligence.

Yet he didn’t pass on the intelligence to his own party leadership that PSNI officers were providing support to a State that had once been one of the biggest suppliers of weaponry to the Provisional IRA. You couldn’t make it up.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Best Facebook post award goes to…

CARRICK councillor Stewart Dickson said of councillor Ian Parsley’s defection to the Conservatives: “All the night in the rain for that [expletive deleted].”

Other Alliance members have been a little more temperate in their language in public, but privately…!

Strangely Parsley seems to have disappeared off Councillor Dickson’s Facebook friends list…

Other news…

Devolved policing no nearer despite the obvious need…DUP and Sinn Féin fighting over who’s a victim and who isn’t…UUP and SDLP publish policy documents and no-one notices…majority of population continues to despair at our politicians.

White van riot

THE idiots want to take over the asylum. More pointless wrecking and rioting have once again taken place in Lurgan. White vans burnt out, drivers left in terror, masked gunmen compensating for a lack in the trouser department by waving phallic weapons in the air and acting all macho.

Revolutionaries? Republican freedom fighters? Dedicated guerrilla soldiers? Or just plain idiots?

After careful consideration of the options…yep plain, stupid, ignorant idiots. And that’s a more sophisticated political analysis than they will ever come up with.

The harshest cut of all

IN case you haven’t noticed, times are tight. And it looks like they are about to get tougher. The Conservative Party and Labour say there will be cuts in public spending. The Ulster Unionists and SDLP say there is hole in finances of NI plc. The DUP warns the block grant that the Treasury hands over may also be cut.

El Presidente…sorry First Minister Peter Robinson, says that this a golden chance to cut down bureaucracy.

His party’s plans to cut back on Government departments will never receive cross-community backing in the lifetime of this Assembly, which leaves him – and all in the Executive in a bit of a quandary. When, rather than if, the block grant is cut where to make the cuts?

The Review of Public Administration has already cut away some unnecessary layers of public service. Cutting or merging any more so-called quangos would at best save a couple of million pounds a year, and demands on the public purse are not likely to ease.
That leaves…front line public services. Across Northern Ireland most are already subject to three per cent cuts year on year. So what’s left? Health and social services: it’s the biggest, but as the population lives longer thanks to the doctors and nurses costs can only be cut by cutting services. And making doctors, nurses work ever harder…

Education: A rare phenomenon in western Europe here is that statistically births are increasing. This means that the planned cull of schools may be a little premature. The option open to the government here is therefore bigger class sizes and fewer teachers.

Without labouring the point the only realistic cuts in these straightened times will be among front line services.

Somehow Northern Ireland’s political classes believe that the Orange Green axis of voters will ignore all this and just keep voting them in.

But, they can perhaps make, at least a gesture towards showing that they care; a display of empathy even.

Every politician could agree to take a 10% pay cut. Equally, every public or civil servant earning more than 50k a year could take a 10% pay cut. Every politician, public or civil servant earning more than 100k could take a 20k pay cut. It wouldn’t stave off economic meltdown but it would show that they care.

The likelihood of said people ever taking such a pay cut? As likely as a resolution of the post primary school transfer mess happening before hell freezes over.

Libya and irony…important lessons

PARIAH states sometimes become good mates. This is a fact of international diplomacy that seems to fly in the face of logic, reason or even the ability of a reporter to understand.

Libya is likely to be a case study for future studies of the paranormal in politics.

To recap: Libya once was a ‘bad country’; Libya stood accused of being behind the Lockerbie plane bombing; Libya pays compensation to victims of Lockerbie; Libyan man convicted of said bombing released from jail in Scotland because he was dying; Prime Minister accused of dodgy deals on release of bomber; victims groups in Northern Ireland want compensation over Libya arming IRA in the 80s; and UK and US oil companies vying for contracts in the north African state.

And now, to complete the ever winding moral maze of relationships it emerges that PSNI officers have been helping training Libyan police officers in the UK and Libya.

Cue unionist politicians’ outrage and disbelief…which underscores the irony of not having policing and justice devolved. Had these powers been devolved, a Northern Ireland Executive Minister would, at the very least, have been informed of the location of deployed officers seconded to the National Police Improvement Agency.

Irony point number one: Libya which used to back paramilitaries who killed Northern Ireland police officers now has its police force being trained by Northern Ireland police officers.

Irony point number two: Sinn Féin, who used to care about such things don’t even raise an eyebrow at these conundrums.

Irony point number three: Nobody outside Northern Ireland cares about any of this, and no-one in the United Nations will notice.

School marm Linda chides the children

SOMETIMES there is a moment on radio that is simply too priceless to ignore. Linda MaCauley, sitting in for Nolan on Thursday of this week, had the task of mediating between the DUP’s Jeffrey Donaldson and Sinn Féin’s Martina Anderson.

Repeatedly she told them to ‘stop’ mid-rant, compared them to children and berated their refusal to let the other ‘child’ have their say.

The “Biggest Show in the Country” was generating the biggest laugh in the country as the hapless politicos tried to make out that the ‘other side’ was telling porkie pies.

The subject of the row…well it was about how everyone in Northern Ireland should work together.

To keep it simple (for any politicians who may be reading) Sinn Féin published their proposals on a way forward for a better, happier Northern Ireland. The DUP said that this wasn’t the way forward for the better, happier Northern Ireland that they wanted.

What is not in dispute is the fact that if the DUP and Sinn Féin ever agree their ‘Cohesion, Integration and Sharing Strategy’, it is unlikely to have much of an impact on Jeffrey and Martina.

Testing times

THESE are testing times for Northern Ireland…especially for the 12,000+ P7 children about to sit ‘unregulated’ tests for 8,000 grammar school places.

Against a backdrop of bickering politicians, burning vans on the front pages of newspapers, a recession, and the prospect of harsh cuts in public spending, anxious children and their families are occupying their times in the final push of revision and associated nerves.

Applied mathematicians are currently calculating the probability of common sense breaking out in the post primary transfer debate.

They are basing their calculations on the number of years the fiasco has been going on, the number of pointless statements being made by both sides, the acreage of Scandinavian forests cut down to meet newsprint demand for pointless re-treaded arguments and the capacity of a Northern Ireland politician to make sense in two consecutive sentences.

It is anticipated that the mathematician who cracks this puzzle will be in line for a Nobel Maths prize…and a well-earned break.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Philosophy students wanted for new course on ‘whataboutery’

AN entire department at Queen’s University, Belfast is to be dedicated to the philosophical examination of what the hell Northern Ireland politicians are on about when they open their mouths to change over their feet.

Such core modules include: “Defining a row and not a row”; “Minister or not a minister – the Hamlet quandary”; and “Housing – Is that my job?”

Module 1: Minister or not a minister – the Hamlet Quandry
IN this part of the course students are to explain the context of a minister’s speaking roles. Their dissertation will be expected to concentrate on explaining when a minister decides when he is to be a party representative and when he is not to be a party representative (i.e. a minister).

Each of the clauses in the above sentence is to be analysed. [Course tutors reserve the right to plagiarise the answers, send them to constitutional lawyers and claim credit when senior civil servants seek legal opinion.]

Students may examine recent speeches from the First Minister, including this week’s controversial Ulster Hall address on how can devolved government deliver for citizens: what was expected of Mr Robinson; what script was he given; did he re-write the script; and was what he said party political or just plain old-fashioned double speak.

As a conclusion, students shall be expected to design a series or jaunty hats that ministers are to wear. This is to let audiences and media instantly tell when they are being a minister, party spokesman or the usual over-opinionated politician given too much air-time. A separate series of hats may be designed to assist MLAs in the same way.

Module 2: Defining a row
STUDENTS shall be required to define the difference between the verbal spats in the media and the seeming lack of fireworks at Executive meetings.

Students will be required to analyse the transcripts of Good Morning Ulster ‘exclusive’ interviews and the call-ins to ‘The Biggest Show the Country!’ (a.k.a. slimmer extraordinaire Mr Stephen Nolan).

Extra marks will be awarded for students that manage to stay awake.

The core of this module will be determining when the First Minister sways between referring to Sinn Féin as his ‘partner in government’ and referring to removing individual party vetoes on policy. Students will also be expected to extrapolate the ‘Disneyland or sunstroke’ metaphor used by the deputy First Minister reacting to the First Minister’s Ulster Hall speech.

Students will also be required to explain the phenomenon of public political spats outside the Executive room are quickly replaced by awkward silences, nervous whistling and eyes furtively examining the décor inside the Executive room. Points will be deducted from any student who mentions anywhere in their discourse the phrase ‘elephant in the room’ as this cliché has now been banned under human rights law under the designation ‘cruel and unusual punishment for readers’.

In addition, students will be expected to explain whether the target date of 2015 to ‘re-write the rules’ is a target or is it the exact date when the rules must be revised. [And if they understand that, and/or explain that they can expect a 1.1]

Module 3: Housing – Is that my job?
The core part of this module relies on defining when a Minister has a legislative obligation and when said obligation can be waived because of financial restraints.

Key to students’ responses will be explaining who has fiscal responsibility? And when that fiscal responsibility ends?

Additional course credits will be awarded for students who outline when a minister should inform the rest of the Executive when they’ve blown their budget, for example as soon as the budget is gone or wait till the media points it out; and what happens when the Executive doesn’t provide additional funds during monitoring rounds.

As a conclusion to their course (combination marks awarded across all three modules) students will have to explain why nothing gets done for those in need (intimidated PSNI officers, flood victims, Roma families) except when it is featured on the media.

U-Turns, handbrake turns and general changes in direction

LIBYA – former pariah state, backer of terrorism and all round nasty guys. Well that was the view until a wee while ago.

Then global oil prices went up…

Compensation for Lockerbie victims – done

Oil deals with British companies – done

Convicted bomber released – done

Compensation for victims of terror….errrr no, definitely not done.

That compensation debate has gone from no chance, to we’ll set up a special unit, to the Libyans saying that the matter is closed and go to courts if you think you have a chance…

Gordon Brown’s flip-flopping backwards and forwards now means he is eligible to go on Top Gear and test drive cars ability to change direction quickly.

Wilson told to stay out of the Republic of Ireland

NO, our esteemed Finance Minister, Sammy Wilson, has not been refused entry to the Republic of Ireland as a result of his new haircut.

Instead Sammy wants to be involved in the Republic of Ireland’s National Asset Management Agency (NAMA) discussions. NAMA is tasked with managing the bad debt resulting from the collapse of the property market, including debts the Irish banks might seek to recover in Northern Ireland.

Sammy believes that the Executive should have a formal role in any discussions relating to debts affecting Northern Ireland properties.

NAMA’s response…err no thanks Sammy.

But they have talked, and that’s nice!

Thursday, 10 September 2009

When is a First Minister’s speech not a First Minister’s speech…?

Peter Robinson’s speech at the Ulster Hall earlier in the week surely points to the painful fact that the Northern Ireland Executive aint working. The agreement thrashed out at St. Andrews (with a unionist/nationalist veto inserted) has resulted in a serious bout of constipation at the heart of the government in Belfast, with the decision making process at a virtual standstill.

Earlier in the week, Robinson was invited to make the speech at a conference entitled "How can devolved government deliver for citizens", as First Minister but delivered it instead as leader of the DUP. The original speech that he was to have given and that had been agreed by the deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness was jettisoned.

This, unsurprisingly, didn’t go down well with the deputy First Minister, accusing Robinson of indecisive leadership - going so far as to say that he believed the First Minister had returned from his Florida holiday suffering from sunstroke and that he had spent "too much time at Disneyland".

From this speech it is clear that the DUP would now like to see a removal of the unionist and nationalist vetoes and the requirement to have cross community support for certain votes in the in the Assembly. Sinn Féin understandably feels that if this were to happen, the other political parties would ‘gang up’ on it and push through decisions that would unpalatable to its constituency.

However, this is all academic as any changes to the current arrangements would need Sinn Féin buy-in. As Mark Devenport put it on his BBC blog, ‘we have deadlock over resolving deadlocks’.

It is little wonder therefore, with the DUP feeling the heat from former MEP Jim Allister’s Traditionalist Unionist Voice, and the likelihood of a Sinn Féin First Minister in post after the 2011 Assembly election, that Robinson felt moved to go off message.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Penalty kick…

The old saying that too often applies to politics in Northern Ireland is that you couldn’t make this stuff up. And you really couldn’t make up the Busman’s Holiday that four of our local MLAs are undertaking.

Given the quips, jests and venomous slagging undertaken by MLAs, it should come as no surprise to find out that Democratic Unionist Sammy Wilson, the SDLP’s Alasdair McDonnell, Sinn Féin’s Barry McElduff and Ulster Unionist Basil McCrea are to take to the stage with a stand-up comedy routine.

Surely it’s just a change of venue as this fearsome foursome try to fumble the funny bone of laughter...September 25th is the date. The Ramada Encore is the venue.

Speaking of the SDLP

Okay, we know you weren’t but we are now. One of the giggling gaggle of MLAs mentioned above has been gagging with vitriol this week.

Alasdair McDonnell launched an unrestrained attack on Sinn Féin, resulting in acres of newsprint, radio phone ins and a hysterical (in both senses of the word!) debate on the blogosphere.

The thrust of the criticism from South Belfast MP is that Sinn Féin are acting in a spirit of self-preservation rather than fostering democracy and debate. He claimed that the party has helped create a dual dictatorship with their Executive co-conspirators, the DUP.

Now, it may be just a coincidence…and sometimes coincidences do happen in politics – but Fianna Fail hinted this week that their potential foray on to the hustings may be rejuvenated.

So Fianna Fail is on shaky ground in government in Dublin; the SDLP wants more seats on the Executive at the next election…so let’s all pick on Sinn Féin!

Or maybe Dr McDonnell simply believes a bit of ‘Shinner’ bashing will go down well with unionist voters in the leafy suburbs of south Belfast, ahead of the Westminster poll.

A stand-up routine including Alasdair McDonnell and Barry McElduff…could be interesting.

Lost a councillor?

Have you spotted a stray councillor wandering the streets of Fermanagh? Answering to the name Domhnall O’Cobhthaigh, he was last seen cuddling up the Socialist Party and complaining that his former Sinn Féin masters just weren’t looking after the working man.

If you see Domhnall, call Connolly House and help them retrieve their wayward son.

How many victims groups are there in Northern Ireland?

It is perhaps a rhetorical device to ask how many victims’ groups there are in Northern Ireland, much like counting angels on a pinhead. It is almost as difficult as guessing how many rehashed policies the Tories and Labour will produce before the next general election.

This week, the Victims Commissioners announced the establishment of a Victims Forum made up of 30 ‘victims’ of the Troubles, including ex-paramilitaries and ex-security force personnel.

And, true to form (in Northern Ireland), there were rumblings of discontent from forum members before it has had its first meeting.

Trying to wade through the multifarious victims’ groups in Northern Ireland produces more than 3 million results, so how were the 30 new forum members chosen? It seems it could have been done like a Facebook befriending campaign ‘You have been invited to join the Victims Forum’.
There was to be one victims commissioner, instead there are four. We now have 30 individuals - handpicked by these same commissioners – tasked with advising the commissioners on what it is to be a victim of the Troubles.

But the real burning question is…where has the apostrophe gone? Even the usually pedantic staff at the Beeb have dropped the apostrophe from Victims Commission and Victims Forum.

Without the apostrophe, of course, this means that there is no possessive; which by tortured and excessive examination of grammar (or at least what grammar we remember from school!) means that neither the forum or the commission ‘belongs to’ or is ‘for’ victims.

The real owners of the forum, commission etc etc are the media. How else are they to fill the airwaves? Report on real news? Properly cross-examine politicians? Nah, soundbite hell from the usual suspects, while too many victims suffer in silence…

Education leaflet

Before the summer break, we commented on the chaos of trying to understand the best way to get a P7 pupil transferred in to post-primary education.

Those warriors of prose and disciples of the comprehensive at the Department of Education, have now produced a leaflet. Yes a leaflet. Described by proponents of testing as ‘helpful’, it contains information.

The system is still a mess, but now we have information on the mess.

Resolution between the DUP and Sinn Féin on education…now that’s a stand-up routine all by itself.

Friday, 14 August 2009

Oh! For flat sake!

SINN Féin is to give up its two London flats in what the party leadership says was an exercise in getting value for money.

It means that the £9,000 per month towards the flats will no longer be paid and MPs visiting London will book hotel rooms instead.

It is tempting to look in a couple of years time to see what the actual saving would be, but that would be churlish and only the sort of person who thinks Gerry and Co were claiming for property they didn’t really use or need would suggest such a thing…