Monday, 19 January 2009

Tickets please

With tickets for Barack Obama’s inauguration trading for several hundred dollars on e-bay, it seems that at least one political chief in Northern Ireland will be there on Tuesday.

Gerry Adams has snagged a precious place at the event.

All the rest will have to do without Bono and Beyonce and the hyperbole that is already reaching fever pitch. We’ll just have to settle for the TV highlights.

The villains of the piece?

Bank bosses were once again up at the Assembly when the Finance Committee called the bankers to see what more they could do in the credit crunch.

The British Banker Association were keen to point out that it was a global crisis and they were doing all they could to help their customers.

Ian Paisley Jnr warned the bankers that the public perception was that they were the villains of the piece.

There is no truth, of course, that bank officials turned up wearing black capes, masks and carrying bags marked swag.

Bob the (Assembly) Builder

As if Plenary Sessions weren’t exciting enough it seems the speaker William Hay is going to make sure that he’s building towards yet more fun in the chamber.

Previously, whoever was in the speaker’s chair called MLAs to speak according to party strengths and the ordering of debates.

Now the speaker plans to call members when they wish to speak.

This means the Assembly could be like Westminster with members bobbing up and down to draw the attention of the speaker, waving their order papers.

The implications are massive replacement surgery for all the arthritic joints of older members trying to keep up the bobbing pace.

Job gloom...that’ll be the employment minister then

With the global economic crisis impacting local employers this week, FG Wilson, Seagate and Nortel were among those making announcements the week ended with Employment Minister Sir Reg Empey warning that up to 20,000 jobs could go in Northern Ireland .

Given that there were 550 job losses this week alone, this could be an under-estimate at best. Empey warned that by 2010 the unemployment rate could be as high as 50,000.

So, when things are tough its time to see Gordon Brown. Empey, together with the First and deputy First Ministers are off to beg the PM to, in the words of the employment minister, show a sense of compassion.

They’ll also be asking for help in the Presbyterian Mutual Society crisis.

The shopping/wish list gets bigger, but will Brown be impressed?

You wouldn’t rate that!

WITH the credit crunch in full swing ministers are hard at it trying to prove their worth.
Coming quickly on the heels of fuel payments being fast-tracked and housing boost, it was time for Nigel Dodds to make another announcement.

He this week promised to help, if he can, local councils struggling to keep rates bills down.
Dodds said he had only limited scope to lend a hand, but he was waiting for officials to see what could be done to help out councils faced with the prospect of cutting services or hiking bills.

The Finance Minister promised an announcement was imminent as councils across Northern Ireland said rates could rise by up to 10%.

With less than a month until councils have to hike their rates, more than a few councillors will be sweating that Mr Dodds won't wait too long for that imminent announcement - not to mention ratepayers!

Torpedoing debates - surely not!

When a week starts it seems that there is a sweepstake running to see how many minutes/hours/days it is before Education Minister Catriona Ruane steps into a row.

This week it was Tuesday morning, when Ruane was in the middle of a muddle disguised as a controversy.

The Assembly had been scheduled to debate on rural school closures during Tuesday’s plenary session.

Lo and behold late on Monday the education department published its Sustainable Schools policy, which specifically sets out the criteria for closing schools.

With various members describing the policy publication date as strange timing, there was a sense that the New Year was really underway with Ruane embroiled in a row and Wilson wading into his own officials!

High rise rows in the city centre

Pity the poor planning officials; first there was the Giant’s Causeway visitor centre row, then there was the PPS14 debacle, then came the John Lewis Sprucefield fiasco. They must have thought that 2009 should provide a quieter 12 months.

That was until Environment Minister, Sammy Wilson spoke out on Monday and he wasn’t exactly holding back.

His own officials were in the firing line for rejecting an application for a high rise development on Belfast ’s Great Victoria Street .

The 390m Aurora Building project got the rejection stamp because officials said it "did not pay due regard to the character of the site and the surrounding area".

Wilson, their boss, said the 37-storey development would have real economic benefits for the city and claimed that his officials in planning had scuppered it.

This, of course drew the ire of public service trades union NIPSA, and led, for once to officials saying, ‘No, Minister’. Wilson is hoping that when it comes to the planning appeal officials will remember the BBC programme and say loudly and clearly ‘Yes, Minister’.