Friday, 18 December 2009
Friday, 11 December 2009
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.
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!
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!
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
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.
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!
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!
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!
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
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
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.
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!
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.
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.
Friday, 20 November 2009
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!
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.
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
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.
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.
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!
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…
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.
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
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.
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 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?
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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
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!
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
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!)
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)
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…
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
Thursday, 15 October 2009
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
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”.
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.’
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!
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.
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.
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
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, 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….
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.
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.
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.
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!
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
Friday, 18 September 2009
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…
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.
Friday, 11 September 2009
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
If you see Domhnall, call Connolly House and help them retrieve their wayward son.
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…
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
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…