Monday, 26 January 2009

She said that I said that he said, etc etc

COULD it be that even the media is becoming a little weary of the wars of words that perpetuate Stormont’s hallowed halls and carpeted corridors?

While political pundits still fall over themselves to report on bickering, the comedic value of our Ministers and MLAs is wearing a little thin in the face of harbingers of recession doom.

Why else would the BBC axe the TV version of political satire Folks of the Hill? Coming hard on the heels of the final tour of Give My Head Peace satire, its entertainment value may be wearing thin; and worryingly we may be moving into a disturbing era of mature politics...though no-one is holding their breath just yet.

War of words – This time it’s for real

Plenary sessions can be dull at the best of times. None but political anoraks and ‘special’ interest groups tend to follow the machinations and procedural nuances of the plenary sessions of the Assembly.

But when accusations of unparliamentary language are flung around the chamber and the temperature is raised, things become more colourful. At times it’s as if MLAs want it to be the verbal equivalent of the World Wrestling Federation’s ‘This Time It’s for Real’ bouts on Sky.

During this week’s debate on the Financial Assistance Bill, First Minister Peter Robinson was on fine form as he jousted with the SDLP. First Declan O’Loan and then his party colleague SDLP Leader Mark Durkan were laying accusations of various forms of “deceit”.

An increasingly weary speaker – the debate ran on to almost 10pm – cut into the debate to say he will be calling Mr Durkan to withdraw his remarks. Should he fail to do so, the Foyle MLA could face a suspension from the Assembly on Monday, which, of course, comes after this weekend’s SDLP Party Conference in Armagh.

More pertinent in the ongoing spat between the SDLP and the DUP/Sinn Féin axis is the impact this will have on relations in the Executive, where the SDLP Minister Margaret Ritchie has to negotiate choppy waters in trying to move forward her Department’s Social Development programmes.

And, as Ministers lead themselves down more alleys of discontent, what does this mean for cross-cutting Executive programmes such as Health Promotion and the Children’s Strategy?
OFMDFM ordered the creation of ‘Children’s Champions’ in each department – one cannot help but wonder if the playground jostling in the Executive needs a champion all of its own to settle the class down. Unfortunately, Senator George Mitchell has a new job – solving the Middle East Question.

US President makes first move

The world’s largest publicly owned housing estate, the United States of America (the US Government now owns the country’s two largest mortgage lenders) inaugurated its new president this week.

The fluffed inauguration aside Barack Obama scanned his desk and the debris of the world’s remaining superpower, the recession and wars and rumours of wars; and where did he find a ray of hope…Northern Ireland of course!

Shortly after fulfilling election pledges to end military tribunals and to signal the beginning of the end for the Guantanamo Bay, the President appointed Special Envoys to troubled regions of the world.

As Northern Ireland no longer qualifies for that status – apart from the Assembly chamber - Senator Mitchell has been dispatched to the Middle East to sort out its warring factions. In his announcement, President Obama made specific reference to the success of peace in Northern Ireland. Of course with that success comes an incumbent responsibility for the development of real politics here.

“There was never a gun made that wasn’t made to fire”

Such were the sage words of the Prince of Darkness, Ozzy Osbourne in 1984. If a semi-demented rocker can figure that out, why can’t certain paramilitary groups.

The ongoing saga of Loyalist decommissioning was raised in the House of Commons this week when Northern Ireland Secretary of State Shaun Woodward claimed that the decommissioning commission had been making ‘meaningful progress’.

Woodward had been challenged to explain why he had extended the deadline for the UDA and UVF to disarm.

With the mobsters in balaclavas given another year to hand over their arms, we move closer to the fifteenth anniversary of the Loyalist ceasefire.


The arcane number above is the result of dividing 11 by seven (rounded to six decimal places in case your child is facing one of the new grammar school entrance tests).

Such sums may result from the much vaunted debates in slicing the number of Northern Ireland departments.

How many permanent secretaries can be divided into any new number of departments? Who is going to pay the redundancies of swathes of civil servants? These and other vexing questions have yet to be addressed.

Nevertheless, on Monday a DUP motion tabled by Simon Hamilton to reduce the number of departments to six or seven was passed in the Assembly with UUP and Alliance Party support.
The SDLP rejected the motion (the implications for deHont selection of Ministers clear to all) claiming it was a ‘carve up’.

Sinn Féin kept their proverbial powder dry saying the time was not right.

With the faltering and stumbling Review of Public Administration yet to be completed it seems that such a slicing and dicing of “the bloated bureaucracy” (© DUP) of Government will be held in abeyance, not least until the decision is made on the Department of Justice (© Judge Dredd).

There’s no justice, there’s just us

According to Sinn Féin, the creation of a Northern Ireland Department of Justice took a step closer this week with the Assembly’s “endorsement” of the creation of the said department.

Sinn Féin’s Alex Maskey said the debate on Assembly departments was a further milestone on the road to devolving policing and justice powers.

Mr Maskey added that the point-scoring of the unionist parties had failed and that the Assembly was soon to be in a position to progress the issue.

Such positioning could be seen by a cynic as Sinn Féin trying to prove that entering power-sharing was worthwhile in advance of the European elections.

Green candidate unveils credentials

With no news as to a Unity candidate for the European Parliament, Steven Agnew was unveiled by the Green Party as the man to take on the might of the political elite.

At the same time, Alliance has been promising to put forward a “high-profile” candidate. With the DUP yet to announce its nominee, the coming months are sure to see much more of the point-scoring noted above as parties seek to establish their credentials.

Agnew can only hope that his message isn’t drowned out in the furore.

Would you credit it?

As noted last week, Finance Minister, Nigel Dodds promised to help out councils struggling through the economic gloom to maintain services, but he had to wait until officials carried out the appropriate calculations, passed their GCSE Maths and found where they had left the calculator.

All that being completed, Dodds unveiled the rescue package. The £8m package included £4m for councils who may have had to hike the rates to householders by as much 10%.

Also rebates granted to the Ministry of Defence and British Telecom are to be offset, as is an increase in the cost of collecting the rates.

The Northern Ireland Local Government Association were reported to be “chuffed” and citizens across the country astounded to find a Minister who listened and officials who managed a process in weeks rather than decades.

Educate me, teach me, learn me

You want your child to go to Grammar School? Then you’ll now have a choice of which examination to sit. One group announced this week that common tests could be taken on school campuses to gain entrance to one of several schools.

This splinter group of grammar schools – separate from the “Quality Education” group has sourced their own tests.

Of course, with grammar schools now setting their own pseudo 11+ the Education Minister was less than happy.

Education Minister Caitriona Ruane was even less over-joyed at the intervention of Bishop Donal McKeown, the head of the Commission for Catholic Education who went public to say he understood the frustration of those Grammar principles who set their own common entrance exam.

Bishop McKeown’s views seem to indicate that the church’s previous stance on no to independent testing has been set aside as long as the impasse remains.

As this came on the day that the Vatican launched its own Youtube channel, ‘Tubers’ are eagerly awaiting a cyber-debate between Pope Benedict XVI and educationalists. But whether the children can watch depends on whether IT skills are on the proposed transfer test(s).

Stroke City hosting North-South chinwag

The North South Ministerial Council ended the political week with a chinwag at Magee College in Londonderry/Derry/Doire.

It’s the first time the council has sat down to natter since Peter Robinson assumed the reins from the Big Man, and Brian Cowen stepped into the shoes left vacant by Bertie.

Staying topical, they discussed how to beat what the British Government has now officially confirmed as a recession in the UK.

With no sense of irony, it comes on the day that Thales Missile Systems announced a contract for providing Starstreak missiles for the MoD (Raytheon style protests are not likely in Newtownabbey though) and two construction companies from Northern Ireland won the contract to build a motorway.

Unfortunately that motorway is being built in Scotland…

As northern and southern ministers contemplated the murkiness of spiralling unemployment, there must have been a certain amount of handwringing over what actually can be done.
With banking giant HSBC pulling out of the PFI deal on the Erne Hospital and the venerable Superquinn empire conceding exchange rate defeat for its Dundalk store, the bad news seems to keep flowing like a tide.

But rest assured that such North South Ministerial Council meetings will promise much co-operation to “weather the storm” but it seems unlikely that First Minister Robinson will go as far as saying that a united approach with his southern counterparts is required. As a Chelsea fan he is allergic to any sentence with “united in it” lest he be invited to Old Trafford.

On from the bench comes…

When you need a substitute in football you hope that the player you bring on has experience enough to cope when a game plan seems to be going awry. Managers want players who know the ropes; who have been there before when the tempest of uncertainty rages through carefully laid schemes.

Seems the same is the case in the Civil Service

This week the SDLP’s Dolores Kelly revealed that 30 retired civil servants had been coining in £424,248 as consultants.

Now, while this may seem shocking in some quarters, look carefully and there could be a grand scheme at play here. (1) Civil servants get redundancy/final salary payments, therefore injecting much needed cash into the economy. (2) Pay them as consultants therefore injecting much needed cash into the economy. (3) Make more civil servants redundant as part of RPA with redundancy/final salary payments, therefore injecting much needed cash into the economy. (4) Pay them as consultants therefore injecting much needed cash into the economy.

Oh wait! That would mean an increase in taxes and rates…and the Irish Times was reporting at the same time that there is a £1bn shortfall in the Executive’s finances. Seems officials will be cadging unspent monies from departments who haven’t progressed their plans. One hopes they haven’t unspent monies in savings accounts. What with the interest rate so low it’s not exactly the best way to get a return on your investment.