Friday, 26 June 2009

Where to start…

IN a particularly busy week in Northern Ireland politics it’s hard to know where to start…MLA expenses, DUP re-shuffling, Ian Paisley Senior roaring, SDLP re-shuffling. When stuck there’s always Sammy Wilson.

The soon to be finance minister was embroiled in another triple jobbing row. This time he was wearing his MLA hat and Belfast councillor hat but had temporarily left his MP hat at home. The row erupted over plans to try and deal with the mountain of waste.

Sammy appeared in the media after yet another vote in Belfast City Council on allowing proposed waste facilities on the north foreshore of Belfast Lough. Sammy didn’t take part in the first vote as he was unsure if was conflicted, given his position as environment minister.

Having taken legal advice (you really couldn’t make this up), the environment minister said he was entitled to vote as there was no real conflict of interest.

There then, in almost time honoured fashion, followed a rant on double and triple jobbing and how it was no big deal.

Hang on there. If you do the sums, Sammy is not double jobbing; he’s not triple jobbing. He is quadruple jobbing. Let’s take it from the top.

Job number 1: Councillor – representing ratepayers of Belfast.

Job number 2: MP – representing constituents of East Antrim in Westminster.

Job number 3: NI Executive Minister – representing the population of NI on matters of the environment (and soon to be custodian of the Executive budget).

Job number 4: MLA – representing constituents of East Antrim at Stormont.

On a different but connected note, he held another job until he jacked it in during October 2007. He was, according to the Assembly website, Chief Examiner in Economics A Level for the schools curriculum body, the CCEA. Perfect for the Finance post then…an expert in A level economics!

Do the MLA shuffle

DO the MLA shuffle! It’s the latest version of musical chairs, a must for any party worried about public perception or the forthcoming Westminster election. First out of the traps at the start of the week was the DUP when it was announced that MPs Nigel Dodds, Gregory Campbell and Jeffery Donaldson were stepping down as Ministers. They were being replaced by Sammy Wilson (who keeps his third job as Minister but moves to Finance), DUP-hardliner Nelson McCausland (who joins the executive as Culture Minister) and former management consultant Robin Newton (who is to take over from Donaldson as Junior Minister). Edwin Poots returns to the executive as Environment Minister.

And SDLP leader and MP Mark Durkan packed in his chairmanship of the Enterprise, Trade and Investment committee. He is to be replaced by erstwhile euro candidate Alban Maginness.

Then followed the news that the DUP was to shuffle its committee chair people – with MPs Iris Robinson, Rev Willie McCrea and David Simpson all relinquishing their respective positions at the top of the Health, Agriculture and Social Development committees. As of Monday they are to be replaced by Jim Wells (Health), Ian Paisley junior (Agriculture) and Simon Hamilton (Social Development).

All four outgoing chairs will lose their £10,000+ per annum office holder payments.

At least the Economics A Level expert, Mr Wilson won’t see such a drastic reduction in his pay packet. He will lose a few quid when he resigns from council, but he will keep his £33,000+ salary boost for being a minister. Maybe all that economics expertise is going to some good use!

To be a city, or not

THE shopping Mecca that is Lisburn City (especially the bits at Sprucefield) and the tranquil hamlets and villages of Lisburn City have been rocked by another row over city status.

The good burghers of Moira, Hillsborough, Annahilt and Dromore awoke on Tuesday to find that Sinn Féin members of the council (mainly representing that part of west Belfast called Twinbrook that is part of Lisburn City) were threatening to block a renewal of city status for Lisburn.

The row was over the fact that Sinn Féin council members didn’t get the fancy chains of office for Mayor and Deputy Mayor during Monday night’s vote.

That would be the chains of office for a city that come the re-drawing of the boundaries, will see some of those Sinn Féin councillors no longer representing Lisburn City.

In summary, Sinn Féin wanted to be one of the top dogs in Lisburn before the new electoral map rolls along in 2011. True to form, the unionist parties (even more paranoid than usual about ‘holding the line’ after the Euro poll) refused to play ball.

The thoughts of the Lisburn City ratepayers in Dunmurry remain unrecorded…

Old lion threatens another swan song

HALF of the ‘chuckle brothers’ duo, Ian Paisley senior, is threatening to stand again in the North Antrim constituency to thwart the TUV challenge of Jim Allister for the Westminster seat.

The 83-year-old has previously said that he would give Allister an (electoral!) hiding if the TUV and former DUP MEP Allister tried to run in the seat, which the DUP has held since 1970.

Allister in turn said the Paisleys were running scared of pitching Paisley junior into the fray.

The usual taunting ensued, including standard TUV fare on Paisley Snr giggling with McGuinness.

Of course, when the 2010 general election is upon us, it will all come down to memory (not Ian Paisleys!). Will the electorate remember that chuckle brothers’ routine as a sell-out or a normalisation? Will they remember the firebrand Paisley? Will they remember why Jim Allister seems so upset at a country living in relative peace? Will they remember the TUV success in defeat in Europe?

Or, given the recent Euro poll turn-out will they even care?

Family affairs…

THE Assembly’s Standards and Privileges Committee has said that members will have to declare when they employ family members as their staff, and the SDLP have said that only one family member should be employed.

Which, of course, begs the question as to what constitutes a family member…a spouse, cousin, a brother, a nephew? After all, on this small wee plot of land we’re all related in some way.

The Assembly speaker, Willie Hay, has also announced 10 guiding principles MLAs should abide by when dealing with expenses. The fifth principle reads: “Openness and transparency about expenditure incurred by Members will predominate, subject only to data protection, security considerations and inordinate or disproportionate costs.”

Guess that means it will be time for the redacting pen to come out when MLA expenses are published!

In other news…

The deputy First Minister has said that the parades issue must be dealt with. Is he sure? Did he only notice recently?

And the Education debate over post-primary transfer remains stalled, broken and generally the mess it has been for several years.

Meanwhile, in the Environment Committee it turns out that it’s a lot more expensive to apply for single dwelling planning applications here than in Scotland and the Republic. That wasn’t what the Department told the committee…cue storm in a committee teacup.