Friday, 1 May 2009

Steady hand on the tiller…

WITH the world’s media descending into hypochondriac overdrive over the swine flu pandemic that hasn’t happened yet, Northern Ireland’s politicians have shown remarkable calm, and believe-it-or-not, leadership.

Despite the best efforts of the local hacks there has been a sense that the administration is prepared and things are not about unravel. This is a shame really as it means that all the puns about MLAs making a pig’s ear of their response to the swine flu crisis have to be shelved for the time being.

Ministerial code – when you really should listen to Sir Humphrey

SENIOR civil servants are an odd bunch at the best of times. Portrayed as Sir Humphreys from the classic sit com, ‘Yes, Minister’, they are often the hidden hand behind decision making.

And it is a wise Minister who takes the time to listen to their advice.

The SDLP’s lone ministerial representative on the Executive, Margaret Ritchie this week heard that a judicial review on her decision not to fund the Conflict Transformation Initiative (after the UDA continued its internal feuding and criminality) will cost the taxpayer £300,000. That’s almost a third of the total CTI fund.

While Margaret might have had the best of intentions, it is clear that she had a deaf ear to protests that there was a better way.

It was ruled that the better way was to make sure her colleagues in the Executive were consulted in appropriate time.

Now the Minister may have believed that they would not back her stance. But when the then Head of the Civil Service, Nigel Hamilton, told her that her decision would break the Ministerial Code a legal challenge was almost inevitable.

That legal challenge was successful. The SDLP this week dismissed the result as a technicality. A costly technicality!

With the Children’s Commissioner claiming her challenge to laws on smacking kids was lost on a technicality too, it is timely to remind politicians and public servants that they may be acting with laudable intent, but it is not their money.

Yep, next time you receive your pay check, just note how much you contribute to these legal technicalities.

MLAs checking their waistlines

IF there seems to be an unusual number of MLAs down at your local gym, it may because of a recent evidence session at the Health Committee.

Sport NI said that 60 per cent of adults here were obese. We have 108 MLAs. Based on the evidence then there is well over 60 chubby Assembly members.

That is, of course, if statistically our MLAs were a representative sample of Northern Ireland’s population. Next time you log on to coverage of the Assembly, or see a politician, try and guess if he or she is one of the chubsters.

Water, water everywhere

WITH the Met Office predicting a warm, dry summer, Regional Development Minister Conor Murphy must be hoping that we don’t face a costly drought.

He looks set to propose a three year deferral in water charges for domestic users.

Of course, with a European election looming it is unlikely that any party will rush to disagree with him.

Such a deferral will also take the decision well past local and general elections.
Comedy, as they say, is the art of timing.

Not that any of our politicians are comedians of course!

Euro runners under starter’s orders

WITH about a month to go before the European poll the first nominations are in. The deadline for registering your intention to standing for a seat in the European parliament is next Thursday.

Once that takes place, there will be the usual flurry of punditry. There hasn’t been an election in a couple of years, meaning that happy days and nights of speculation lie ahead.

With up to seven candidates expected to try their hand at getting the backing of the electorate, there will be much analysis of whether Sinn Féin can top the poll; will Jim Allister give the DUP a bloody electoral nose; will the new Tory/UUP alliance bring in new voters; will the SDLP begin to see the first green shoots of poll recovery…but most of all will anyone care.

Northern Ireland has, in the past, had one of the better turn-outs for the European election, when the green/orange split has played out at the polling booths.

Now that we have our beloved Assembly back in the saddle, will the electorate turn out in their droves? And will it effect the pundits ability to predict the unpredictable.

We here have only one prediction, one that we can make with much certainty. Acres of forest will tumble to keep up with the column inches of newspapers and the posters that are already starting to adorn every available telegraph pole, street light and tree.

Next week we’ll list all the runners, and have a go at seeing what odds the bookies are giving for each candidate.

Raise prices, save jobs

Want planning permission? It’s gonna cost you a lot more. Environment Minister, Sammy Wilson has agreed to 20 per cent price hikes for planning applications.

The reason for the hike is to protect jobs in the Planning Service.

Hardy economists have been trying to decide whether this move is based on Keynesian economic theory, Marxist revisionism or a Malthusian analysis.

What is sure is that if there isn’t a return to increasing residential and business developments, the price hike will be to no avail…except for the fact that local councils are to getting planning powers, which will require more planning officers. That should be entertaining! Oh, and with entertainment licences also set to rise, council chambers may be the only places open for public entertainment!

More expense

And rising prices were a theme this week. The PR faux pas by NI train and bus operator Translink over its announcement that fairs were to rise was set aside as it deferred the rises that were set to come in on May 4.

The price hikes are still coming, but now they’re going to make sure they tell the Assembly committee and the Consumer Council that they’re raising prices. Ahh, consultation – you’ve got to love it.

Education update

This week’s education debacle update…The consultation on the (post-primary) Transfer 2010 guidelines closed. Minister Ruane to face potential legal challenge on the Equality Impact assessment…Children’s Commissioner barely contains exasperation in reminding both Minister and Executive that there are real pupils and families left in limbo…more gossip about tests and non-tests…no-one really knows what will happen.

In other words the song remains the same - repetitive, slanging, sung in political and religious trenches. It’s nice to see that children’s lives and future potential are being so carefully considered.

Primary Six pupil’s parents are considering copyrighting the phrase “political football”.