Monday, 20 December 2010

Snow joke

OKAY – we are officially and totally fed up and cheesed off with another pratt ringing into radio shows or commenting at the bar that the country grinds to a halt with a “wee bit of snow”.

Equally irritating are those that claim that they seem to cope in Finland, Sweden, Russia, etc etc, etc.

Let us state the bleeding obvious: Northern Ireland rarely faces extreme weather. Thus it would be wasteful and irresponsible for the country to have large numbers of snow ploughs and other assorted specialist equipment at hand throughout the year.

And, there are also those that hop into their car, cheerfully ignoring the police advice to avoid all but essential journeys, before skidding off the road; panicking and generally unable to cope with the weather conditions.

Let’s not forget the eejit who snorts: “So much for global warming!”

The actual phrase should be “climate change” and it’s all pretty complicates and to do with the diversion of the Gulf Stream, amongst other factors.

Surely our scientists must be able to come up with a satisfactory solution for treating snow and ice bound pavements and roads before the politicians drive themselves to apoplexy blaming each other!

Bye, bye baby

WHERE does an MLA go when they decide to pack up their Stormont office, put belongings and desk tops into cardboard boxes and head off into a setting sun?

Facing life on the fringes of political life – a lonely barely recognised figure at party conferences – what consolation does an MLA draw from life.

Of course, there is a pension. And, this week it emerged that MLAs get a ‘winding up allowance’.

This is, supposedly, a cash pay-out to help with paying off constituency staff, paying outstanding stationery costs, rent etc.

We, however, wonder whether the costs are actually as high. Of the 12 MLAs who over the last two years have handed in their letters of resignation, how many have physically closed their offices, for new incumbents to open brand new offices. And, when one thinks about stationery, does the Assembly not provide the MLAs with smart headed paper?

But aside from these niggles the Ulster Unionists have got their knickers in a knot over the whole issue. Why? UUP leader Tom Elliott claims that some DUP members who resigned may be standing for the Assembly again.

Never mind the costs – some of the most vocal DUP advocates and able politicos will once again stalk the carpeted and marble corridors.

We suggest that Mr Elliott takes a wee break and watches the first Terminator movie. In that movie the android played by the current Governor of California promises: “I’ll be back!” He does indeed come back to wreak havoc. But at the end of the film the android has his rear end kicked.

So, Mr Elliott can hope that some of his DUP rivals will return to face a similar – if metaphorical – ending. But then again, as John Lennon once said, Mr Elliott may be forced to sing the Late Mr Lennon line: “You may say, I’m a dreamer”.

Errr - have we not decided it already?

IT may be the cynics who lurk amongst us that inspire a tiny smidgeon of doubt about proposed capital projects announced in last week’s draft budget, but we think that the money was there already...

When the Executive’s man with the purse strings, Minister Wilson, rose to deliver his budget statement, he said that infrastructure projects, such as the new police (and fire service) training academy would be built, Altnagelvin Hospital would get a new radiotherapy centre and sports stadia would be upgraded.

We may, or may not, be completely and utterly stupid (such has been suggested by constant readers, but they still read this – so who’s the stupid one?) but these projects have been on the table for more than a couple of years.

Indeed, we and many others have been fed up to the back teeth listening to wrangles about them. It may, or may not, be the case that these projects have been budgeted for. It may, or may not, be the case that decisions were fudged and dodged to avoid offending one side or other.

But, if the money had been set aside for the sports stadia upgrades, for example, where was it when the rows about location (Maze/Long Kesh prison site anyone?) and wrangles within the Irish Football Association were taking place. Was it languishing in a Swiss bank account accumulating interest? Was it hidden underneath Sammy’s mattress? Was it tucked safely away with the banks? Or, was it somewhere within the corporate governance maze of drawdowns and money requests to Treasury that dominate all public sector relationships?

For, if it is the case that the cash has already been allocated it could be that instead of Executive largesse, the infrastructure budget seems more than a wee bit suspicious. Or maybe it is that infectious cynicism that seems to be afflicting us all post-budget statement...

Plastic fantastic

GEE, ain’t it great that the Minister for Finance and Personnel has gone all green?! No, he has not donned a Leprechaun outfit and volunteered to lead the St Patrick’s Day Parade in New York. Instead Sammy has declared for the environment, with his draft Budget announcement.

Yep, the man who is a climate change denier and tried to bar ads that called for carbon efficient practices has announced that he is minded to introduce a plastic bag tax.

Green activists paused before celebrating – for it is clear that Mr Wilson was not really interested in turtles swallowing plastic bags or hedgerows clogged with shopping detritus.
His motivation was to raise some extra revenue for the cash strapped DOE.

But, as humble commentators on the political winds that emerge from the collective superannuated rear ends of our politicians, we looked at the practice behind the theory.

Mr Wilson – and in turn the Executive on which he sits – thinks that the 15p tax per plastic bag will raise loads of cash. And, we as shoppers will hardly notice the pennies added to the bill; thus generating the money.

But to a certain extent this assumes that we will passively accept a new item on the shopping bill.

We think not!

Shoppers will suddenly remember all the ‘bags for life’ and hessian shopping bags that clutter up car boots and dusty cupboards under the stairs.

And plastic bags will become the minority holder for provisions, groceries and assorted essentials of life. This, of course, means that the projected revenue from the scheme will be reduced.

But, we suspect that there is an alternative explanation. Minister Wilson needs to appease some people. Not the environmental lobby, nor Tidy Northern Ireland. Instead it is his NI Executive colleagues in Sinn Féin. For it is clear that no sensible person here would agree to taxing texts from the ever-present mobile phones (have you ever seen a politician without a Blackberry or iPhone within quick draw range?). Thus Sammy needed to show the Shinners that he could do something that was all about raising money rather than just imposing cuts.

Who cares about the exact figures – it is the show that counts.

Do they know it’s Christmas...

THERE is a rather cruel joke that was doing the rounds a couple of weeks ago about Ethiopian fundraising...it suggested that Ethiopians were now fundraising for the poor of the Republic of Ireland.

Of course the bail-out of the Irish economy was a source of national embarrassment, whether or not this was truly justified.

But amid the snow and ice Northern Ireland has also had to face up to the harsh realities of the tough financial climate: the chill Arctic winds of recent days are echoed in the palpable sense that we’re in for a long hard economic equivalent of a nuclear winter.

Not that you would have thought so when the DUP/Sinn Féin ministers smiled and nodded as Minister for Finance and Personnel Sammy Wilson delivered his budget statement last week (by the way, can we not all chip in a couple of quid to buy Sammy a nice red box to hold aloft when he arrives at Parliament Buildings?)

There was a sense that we’d all dodged the proverbial bullet with the draft Budget: the argument was along the lines that it will be a hard few years, but thanks to the wily skills of the negotiating team it was nowhere near as bad as it could have been.

Which also answers the question as to why ministers need so many spin doctors: because it surely only spin to try to sell that line. The question is whether we – to extend the metaphor tortuously – will seize it hook, line and sinker.

The consultation period on the Executive’s draft Budget is designed to draw us further to the shore of DUP/Sinn Féin party lines before the May election.

Look closely at the draft budget and there will be really, really tough times ahead. Come the time to cast (Editor’s note: please, no more fishing references!) your vote, the full impact of budgetary decisions may not have been felt.

Which will be of no comfort to those public and civil servants heading to the dole office after ‘efficiency savings’, also known to those that detest euphemisms as ‘cuts’.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

It fair gladdens the heart

WHETHER you are an unreconstructed Tory or an unreconstructed anarchist, the protests over increased student fees must gladden the heart.

As a Tory, you get to claim that the violent forces of malcontents, anarchists and bad ‘uns have run rampant, with only a thin blue line averting the breakdown of society. As an anarchist, you get to claim that the people are on the streets, brutalised by the police, and that only violent protest stopped the Poll Tax.

Meanwhile those of us who benefitted from halcyon days when fees were paid and grants offered to most must be a little confused. After all free higher education was a good thing in our day, we know someone needs to pay for it, but exactly who should and how much?

In addition, such confusion has been evident in the Northern Ireland Executive. It is apparent that NI plc would be delighted to be able to claim that it could subsidise higher education so that fees could be minimised, if not eliminated, but that ain’t going to happen; and if it does Sammy will be doing a lot of explaining to HM Treasury!

Instead, we have a complex financial conundrum being played out in simplistic terms on TV and radio.

Nevertheless, we must commend the inspiration of modern history students. Surely it must have been they who were behind the protest in Belfast. Sit down blocking a road...that would be the history of Ardoyne protests course. Causing traffic chaos at rush hour...that would be how a provo held up rush hour traffic with a bag of 10ps and a code word to claim devices were ‘planted’ throughout the city.

Alternatively it could have been a combination of art and drama students who made Belfast city centre into an extravagant avant garde performance art piece with the tableau captured for posterity by the hovering PSNI helicopter.

It certainly wasn’t the earth and environmental science students – all the pollutants pouring out of idling vehicle engines simply horrified the tree huggers. Whichever student group orchestrated the protest in Belfast should not be shunned by Minister of (un)Employment and Learning, Danny Kennedy.

Mr Kennedy should forthwith seek out the protest organisers, wrench them from the dead hand of law and order, bring them into a darkened room – and get them to explain how people from such a diverse range of backgrounds can organise themselves.

If they can manage to bring Belfast to a standstill with a few Facebook posts and text messages, solving the budget problem would be a doddle. Failing that, the English Literature students could at least help him cobble together a press release.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Taxes are so ‘unattractive’

THIS week it has emerged that former chief ‘A’ level examiner and current Minister for Finance and Personnel, Sammy Wilson finds tax cuts ‘unattractive’ – well one in particular.

There has been much lobbying for a reduction in Corporation Tax to align ourselves with our Southern cousins. Now it has emerged that if we do it HM Treasury want some money back. You just cannot win!

If the Corporation Tax was reduced then it is imagined that a tide of FDI (that means Foreign Direct Investors to those who are not privileged to stalk the multi-storey Invest NI Bedford Street mega office) will sweep into Northern Ireland. It is also imagined that if the NI Executive can just capture that leprechaun and his pot of gold then all will be well for the Budget.

Let’s face it – the idea that lowering Corporation Tax is a panacea is fanciful if not ridiculous at best. Along with – if we slash the public sector then everything will work out despite the fact that our economy is dependent on the sector.

So what have Gerry and Robin ever done to the SDLP?

YOU could ask what have the Junior Ministers, Gerry Kelly and Robin Newton ever done to the SDLP, who announced in their budget proposals that the Junior Minister posts should be scrapped in these tight financial times.

Of course, you could argue that there is only a slight chance that the SDLP will occupy these posts so it is easy to call for them to be scrapped… but that is only the sort of comment the most cynical of us would make…

And, if we are to be accused of cynicism let’s be a wee bit cynical about the party’s call to tax holes in the wall. No, not the Hole in the Wall gang, but ATMs; those ubiquitous Automated Telling Machines; or cash machines as known colloquially.

To stretch the analogy a wee bit, let us suppose that those in the lowest socio-demographic quartile (see we can do smart talk too, like!) have not got access to fancy, dancy credit cards and debit cards. Instead they have their post office card and a wee card savings account. Then the logic is that the tax will impact those with the least; making it a regressive tax.

You may recall from GCSE Economics – or for older readers ‘O’ level economics – that regressive taxes are generally those that affect the poorest. And as you may recall from GCSE/O level politics, social democratic parties – even those with centrist leanings are pretty much against hitting the poorest hardest.

On a brighter note, under the SDLP’s proposals, any public servants earning over £80,000 per annum will have their pay cut by five per cent…

Tories confused by coalition confusion

IT used to be the old Conservative and Unionist party. But to be a Tory in this part of the union can be a little confusing.

Rewind a couple of years and the UUP/Tory project was seen to be building a wee bit of steam ahead of the European election. Then came the general election debacle.

Then came the recriminations, and then came the discussion over Assembly candidates and just who is standing for whom?

With the UUP shedding and suspending members, and the Tories here suddenly finding themselves seemingly cut adrift from a Conservative HQ that sometimes misses the nuanced paranoia of Northern Ireland politics.

The local Conservative Party chairman, Irwin Armstrong has resigned – no doubt in exasperation.

We recommend that every time David Cameron doubts the wisdom of coalition with the Liberal Democrats he can cast a wistful eye across to Norn Iron and sigh gladly that even the students are easier to handle than the Norn Iron political classes.

Grit your teeth

THERE is a seemingly stupid level of bureaucratic insanity that abounds in Norn Iron; at times it reaches levels of Kafkaesque surrealism.

Now that temperatures have reached heady heights of single figures in what can be described as a thaw the issue of gritting footpaths will fade from radio talkshows for now.

But let’s recap. The snow and ice left a wake of icy roads and footpaths. The Roads Service gritted as much as possible in damned cold weather. They said simply they could not afford to grit the footpaths. Some councils decided they could, others said they couldn’t.

For several days footpaths across Norn Iron were dangerous to those venturing out.
There was much disagreement over who would be liable over claims and a lot of confusing comments from local council spokespeople and Department of Regional Development.

As they were waffling on the airwaves and penning comment pieces in newspapers a simple fact existed – most footpaths were still treacherous to pedestrians, with no doubt the resultant increase in trips to A&E with fractures.

Over 12 days many footpaths were left ungritted. We restate that because there is obviously some form of sheer lunacy that renders grown ups incapable of picking up the phone, arranging a quick meeting.

And the agenda of that meeting should be very simple and clear – let’s agree a way to get the gritting done.

These grown ups prefer to look for an imagined claim for injuries that may or may not happen as a way of avoiding making a collective decision.

The only joined up government is the joint repairs of a pensioner waiting in a hospital ward for an operation after toppling on an icy pavement.

Monday, 6 December 2010

A sporting chance

HEAD of Sports NI Eamonn McCartan made a comment or two about why no 2012 Olympic teams have as yet booked their training camp in Norn Iron – citing the poor image of shootings and bombings.

This provoked more than a little ire from Ministers, who rushed to defend Norn Iron from such comments.

But we wanted to contribute to the push to get teams booking their flights to Belfast ahead of London 2012.

First off Afghanistan – the Royal Irish Regiment currently on duty could encourage the Afghan national shooting team to lay off attacks and come practice on our streets instead.

Next – we undertook extensive research (two minutes on Wikipedia) to check on the country with the highest murder rates. El Salvador claimed that dubious prize, so we could suggest their team comes to Norn Iron for some relative tranquility.

Then there is, of course, Russia. After them sparing us the gloating of English sports journalists for the next eight years by taking the World Cup away, we should offer them free facilities as well as plentiful supplies Buckfast and Poteen in exchange for some of their fine vodka. After all last week saw the first ever shipment of potatoes from here to Russia, and as they say one good turn deserves another...

I want to break free

HARRY ‘Mercury’ Hamilton has said goodbye to the Ulster Unionist party. Despite being the party’s Westminster candidate and grabbing 10,000+ votes the Upper Bann association chose not to offer him the Assembly poll ticket.

The renowned Freddie Mercury tribute singer this week announced he had resigned from the party, no doubt singing to himself:
“I want to break free
I want to break free
I want to break free from your lies
You’re so self-satisfied I don't need you
I’ve got to break free
God knows, God knows I want to break free...”

In response Party Leader Tom Elliott was heard to murmur: “Easy come, easy go...” and rhyming off Bohemian Rhapsody lyrics.

In Mr Hamilton’s public announcement of his resignation he said that would not reject a call from the Alliance Party, but as “Hanging on the Telephone” is a Blondie song he didn’t know the lyrics...

Sinn Féin’s poll rises

NOT only have Sinn Féin got another TD, but it appears that their poll ratings in the south of Ireland are rising.

We have thought long and hard over this – well three minutes, but we were waiting on the tea lady to deliver some char. And we’ve got it all figured out. And it goes like this.

Sometime ago a secret deal was struck. A cabal of senior politicos in Dublin agreed that they’d transfer Caitriona Ruane ‘up north’. In return we would transfer Gerry Adams to Louth. They accepted the difficulties attached to having the Sinn Féin leader in their patch, but it was a small price to pay for watching all the giggles and fun as Minister Ruane teased those ghastly grammar schools.

All we ask you to note is that with the onslaught on grammar school education, Ulster rugby has been eclipsed by its southern counterparts. Surely no coincidence!

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Why we need wikileaks in Northern Ireland...

THERE is a culture in Northern Ireland that is both oppressively secretive and obsessively built on gossip.

Spend five minutes at any given political party’s annual conference and it all begins to resemble a Monty Python ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink’ sketch...

Not that we are implying that there is a tendency for badly dressed men to wander around conferences seeking sexual favours from glamorous wives of stout Ulsterfolk (and if you’ve ever been to any of the party conferences you’ll see that glamorous wives and stout Ulsterfolk are very much in the minority!)

Instead we are merely pointing out that politics – especially in Northern Ireland – is a trade shrouded in the hints and half-truths that can disembowel (figuratively of course) political opponents, and even those within one’s own party.

What we need is a wide-ranging exposé of the secret communiqués between political allies and foes alike. Except that is that too few of them actually have anything genuinely interesting to say.

Seriously when was the last time when a politician in Norn Iron said something truly new and exciting (okay, we won’t mention the Robinsons if you won’t!).

Look or listen to any given debate, news appearance, radio call show, phone-in debate and you will not be able to say with your hand on your heart that you could not predict the robotic diatribe that is about to come out of their mouths.

Therefore, for those that are genuinely interesting – of which given the laws of probability there must be two or three – we need a wikileaks exposé of what their inner most secrets are. Heck, we’d even settle for a few of the MLAs slagging each off in colourful language!

Friday, 26 November 2010

Relax – it’s only tax after all

THERE’S been much talk about taxes this week that is just about to pass into last week. Much talk has been over the tax implications of the bail-out of the Republic of Ireland and the tax and cut budget.

Equally, Norn Iron has had tax on its political mind. First Minister Peter Robinson has said that he eagerly awaits the HM Treasury paper on rebalancing the local economy as he urged a reduction in corporation tax “up here”.

Before the mirth, here are the facts, as we selectively choose them much in the way that a management consultant may, or may not select such facts to suit their client’s needs.

First off, the rate of corporation tax in the UK (which, despite protestations from some, Norn Iron is currently part of) is set at 28%. Second, the rate of corporation tax in the Republic of Ireland is 12.5%. Thirdly, large companies, and even small ones employ accountants. Figure the relationship out for yourself.

The next fact is that Foreign Direct Investment – that Golden Goose Government so eagerly prostrates itself before – is dependent on more than the tax regime. After all it is also down to what Invest Norn Iron can con, sorry can do, to convince investors to make their way to our fair shores, laden with promises of jobs and hands out for handouts.

So why all the fuss about Corporation Tax? Said allegedly high UK rate has not as yet deterred the financial world building modern towers of Babel in London. If you were to believe bankers, it is only the threat of curbing bonuses that may threaten London’s pre-eminence in financial shenanigans.

We think there is a wee sneaky voice in most politicians advocating lower corporation tax in Norn Iron that occasionally whispers in the darkened night, when conscience creeps towards realisation that the wee voice is uttering just two words: “gesture politics”.

Why oh why did we choose this career path!

THERE comes a time in one’s life when one looks back over the successes and failures of one’s career and wonders whether it has all been worth it.

No, we’re not talking about donning a hair shirt, seeking spiritual enlightenment or devoting vast amounts of time to green gardening. We’re talking about why oh why we didn’t pursue a career in the law profession!

After all most solicitors with a few years under the expanding belts are worth a few proverbial quid. But then there is a cash earner on an entirely different level - the barrister!

Maybe, just maybe, we could have thrust aside scruples, pretended to read more than necessary, and become a barrister. Think of the benefits. The government pays you money, and loads of it.

No, we’re not talking about public sector money, we’re talking about cold hard cash for ‘LEGAL AID’! Sorry, but that required capital letters. After it emerged that in the past two years one barrister coined in £2m plus, four earned £1.5m plus, six earned £1m plus and 22 earned £500k plus from working on LEGAL AID cases. And they get to wear black capes and natty wigs too! Even Batman didn’t get the cool wig!

To recap – a group of people get paid a lot of money by taxpayers. And get to wear wigs, and get to earn money ‘freelancing’ in legal waffling (sometimes called giving an opinion...hey we’ve got opinions too!).

Of course, they’ve done nothing “wrong” or illegal in getting paid these huge, wheelbarrow sized wads of money. After all, it is the Legal Services Commission that sets the money that said barristers get for LEGAL AID cases. Oh, hold on a moment, it is the Northern Ireland Legal Services Commission. Which is different to the Legal Services Commission in England and Wales...

The Legal Services Commission seems, on the face of it, to pay barristers, QCs and other assorted wig wearing types a wee bit less than its Norn Iron counterpart. We could be wrong, of course, but goddammit this ain’t no court of law! Plus, after googling to try and discover who was a lawyer on the board of the Northern Ireland Legal Services Commission board and who wasn’t, and been denied access when we clicked on the ‘Members’ tag because we weren’t members, we gave up presenting any opinion before the court of public opinion...

But on a serious note, who let matters get to such a state where barristers coined in £60m in two years on legal aid cases? Surely it was the Government. Yes, and it wasn’t the Assembly. They only got to have a say in it recently and Mr Ford as Minister For Justice is putting a cap on all that and much more...or so he says.
So, has the heyday of bewigged barristers (when were they making hay while the country went to hell in a hand basket) now passed? Somehow we doubt it. After all for all the learned gentlemen and gentleladies of the law there only remains one phrase that needs to be translated into Latin: “There’s no justice, there’s just us!”.

On that note we are away to convince all children we know to become highly paid doctors or better still barristers...after all barristers get to wear wigs!

That’s a bit rich...

WE have been missing Caitriona Ruane! With all the talk of the economy and the doomed nature of Norn Iron plc there has hardly been a chance to mention the Minister for Education, and that seems a little unfair.

To redress the balance here’s a wee snippet. Your department pays for a new school wing. You are invited to open said school wing. Then you tell them they’ve got to mend their damned post-primary selection ways.

What? C’mon that seems a bit rich. We know that as Minister for “Every School a Good School” Education you could at least lay off what is patently a good school (St Dominic’s Girls Grammar, Belfast).

Ahh Caitriona we’ve missed your pithy rejoinders to all who challenge your world view. Although we do wonder whether we will see the school whose new wing you opened fall at your devastating logic and become all ability? Err, no, they had hundreds sit the entrance test to grab a place at this good school.

In through the out door

THE BBC has recently written an extensive article on the use of the word ‘progressive’ in the world of politics, citing old world progressive rockers ‘Yes’ as a means of introducing the article.

We have been wondering whether the ultimate blues, folk, rock, metal progressive act Led Zeppelin have had their album ‘In Through The Out Door’ playing in the Parsley household.

Ian Parsley announced last week that he has parted ways with Conservative Party in Northern Ireland. That comes about 18 months after he parted ways with the Alliance Party. That’s the Alliance Party that his partner Paula Bradshaw joined after quitting the Ulster Unionist Party, which was in a working arrangement with the Conservatives in the UCUNF project.

Mr Parsley eloquently outlined his position as had his partner in previous weeks.
Surely it is progressive that our politicians have such a progressive attitude to party membership that they can up political sticks on a regular basis.

Oh Owen, we love it when you talk tough!

SECRETARY of State, Owen Paterson has been talking tough. As the Peter and Martin air miles clock up again flying to London with begging bowl held out to HM Treasury, Owen has been saying where said begging bowl can be thrust!

Speaking on Thursday, he said a settlement was a settlement not the opening gambit in a negotiation.

Keen to point out that Norn Iron had already gotten a good deal and that Scotland and Wales had already set their Budgets, Mr Paterson called for an urgent agreement so as work can get underway on the NI Budget.

Mr Paterson may have visited this part of the UK/part of the island of Ireland/etc many, many times but he seems to have missed that old Belfast witticism that could be applied to any member of the NI Executive: “Sure, yer man would start a row in an empty house!” And against such a backdrop there ain’t much hope of agreement within the same party let alone across the varied political affiliations in the Executive. Much easier to extend the begging paw...

Next week: the First Minister and deputy First Minister guest write for the Big Issue, and flog copies across London.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Make Northern Ireland normal...

SECRETARY of State Owen Paterson has suggested that, with a wave of the legislators’ deathly hand, Norn Iron can be normalised.

Mr Paterson has said that he is seriously considering a ‘Normalisation Bill’ that would with all sorts of legislative garbage that has been left over from various agreements, side deals and unseemly delays that led to an unseemly rush to make laws.

But there is one thing that troubles us. When has the root word of normalisation (that would be ‘normal’ for all those struggling to keep up!) ever been used in connection with Norn Iron.

The Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, may have said that our towns were as British as Finchley, but then again she didn’t get out much from behind the layers of security. Paterson, one would have thought, should know better.

We’re the country that introduced colour coded kerb stones for those not sure which sectarian enclave you were stumbling upon.

We’re the country where for a long time 10-year-old boys could determine a rifle calibre from the distant sound of a gunshot.

We’re the country that has many of its middle-aged people complaining that riots aren’t just as much fun as they used to be.

We’re the country that has managed to elevate benefit collection to an art form.

We’re the country that has had more public enquiries than the rest of the Europe combined, and probably has more lawyers per capita than any other region apart from the US.

And therein lies one particular rub. Mr Paterson, it turns out may not be quite as daft as he seems.

In talking about the idea of a story-telling to sort of wrap the whole Troubles thing up, he said: “Historians might just have more appropriate skills than lawyers in helping to resolve the past."

That may be the case, but it certainly is the case that they charge a helluva lot less than the battalions of barristers and legions of lawyers who hang round the gates pondering the next thousand pounds or so of legal aid fees they can charge, or wonder wistfully when the next public enquiry is to get underway.

You’ve got to laugh

YOU’VE got to laugh at the knots that our esteemed leaders and political thinkers are tying themselves into over the seemingly impossible task of agreeing the Northern Ireland Budget.

Every now and then Finance Minister Sammy Wilson feels obligated to spout a few words on BBC about unrealistic members of the Executive, while similarly obligated Sinn Féin members reach for the phone in hotline to tell Nolan et al that there’s money in them thar hills.

Said money is to come from the end of the rainbow, the mobile phone companies or other improbable sources.

Sammy’s improbability comes from his reluctance to suggest that there is any possibility that any more money can be prised from the notoriously tight budgets of HM Treasury.

Sinn Féin’s improbability comes from saying (on talk shows) that their position that water charges will not be introduced is “non-negotiable”.

Oh yes, there is an election coming up.

One may also note that our esteemed First and deputy First Ministers have been relatively circumspect on the whole wrangling between their respective parties.

We can only suggest a couple of alternatives. Firstly, could it be they know something the rest of us don’t. Or is it that they have decided to behave in a statesman like fashion?

Nope neither of these is plausible. More likely they are content to let their minions butt heads while they ponder the cost of a cappuccino on one of their frequent jaunts to the US, London or wherever they can go to get away from their embattled colleagues.

Meanwhile no serious budget agreement is in sight.

Bye for now Gerry

SO the beard is bringing the man down below the hated border. Yes, Gerry Adams, fed up with the growing unemployment and run down nature of the North is heading to the only part of Europe with worse employment prospects – the Republic of Ireland.

The MP, MLA and general politician at large is to stand as a TD in Co. Louth. His toothy smile and generally sunny disposition will no doubt woo the economically disenfranchised electorate of Louth. But one does wonder where it leaves his infamous ‘they haven’t gone away you know’ comments. While they haven’t gone away, the rest are just on holiday in Donegal or canvassing in Louth.

Independence for the independents!

FOR some time in the ‘70s those with a poor grasp of macro-economics and a tenuous hold on reality used to advocate for an independent Northern Ireland.

While most thought that politicians with little hope of electoral success had been consigned to the part of the ballot paper few were brave enough to tread, other than the Monster Raving Loony Party, we now have a new political ‘force’ set to contest the Assembly elections in May.

The UK Independence Party has said that it plans to put its hat into the ring as a “non-sectarian, sensible, unionist alternative”.

Our proportional representation system of voting is one reason cited for the step. However, even those who are challenged by voter mathematics will be concerned to see a party that achieved just over 3.1% of the electoral share in the Westminster election hope to score a quota no matter how many transfers they gain from TUV votes.

Paisley backs united Ireland shock!

THE Lord Bannside formerly known as Ian Paisley has come out in favour of a united Ireland. Yes, you read that right: Lord Bannside has said in the House of Lords he would support a united Ireland.

Lord Bannside only put one tiny, small, minute condition on his support. Indeed such a small condition it would be small-minded and intemperate for anyone to find a problem with such a condition.

The condition was that Ireland could be reunited under the British Crown.

Errrr, that may be a little too weird for even the weirdest of republicans to back. Seems the clue is in the name...republican that is!

Best of luck to you all

THE EDUCATION Minister has been pretty even handed. Yes, and don’t you dare doubt it.

Caitriona Ruane, in a press release on the eve of the Grammar Schools’ ‘breakaway’ transfer tests offered her best wishes to those sitting the tests. She also offered her best wishes to those not sitting the tests.

Such even-handedness could be subscribed to – even welcomed - were it not for the fact that Caitriona and her political nemesis Education Committee Chairman Mervyn Storey, together with the massed supporters behind them, can barely agree the day of the week let alone a way to slice open this Gordian knot.

There is one sure way – it is called compromise. What exactly that compromise may be, we dare not suggest (we could but this is a political column not a politician’s column!).

But perhaps we should start by making sure that the politicians concerned should all be a bit more concerned about the 10 and 11-year-olds who, while sitting in mummy and daddy’s car on their way to school, have their innocent ears polluted by intransigence, belligerence and downright nastiness from both sides.

Next thing will be that MLAs will be claiming there is no Santa – rotters the lot of them!
If they are not careful we’ll set the Tooth Fairy on them!

Monday, 15 November 2010

You couldn’t make it up!

YOU really couldn’t make it up! No really, you could not make up the surreal world where public bodies across Northern Ireland have rates arrears of £4.5m.

Let’s get this straight now. Central government gives arms length bodies and executive non-departmental bodies (what the slow of thinking call quangos) money to do work.

They then expect them to give some of that money back in the form of rates.

This then needs to be administered by those arms length bodies, NDPBs and needs to be administered centrally to make sure that the money that was given out comes back...

Instead of this palaver, bureaucratic stupidity and deskbound paper and budget shuffling would it not be easier for the Department of Finance and Personnel to just say to all the departments – “chill out, we’ve got your rates covered.”

Might mean that some civil servants and public servants can do constructive work rather that getting money in, to give it back to the department that handed it out in the first place!

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Chow down folks while you still can


STORMONT has a real problem. There are no Chinese restaurants, chip shops or decent pizza parlours on the premises. For MLAs this makes ordering in some chow when you’re peckish.

This means that reluctantly MLAs must take their weary and care-worn bodies along to the restaurant, where well-cooked, well-prepared meals can be obtained at very reasonable prices: very reasonable subsidised prices.

Who pays this subsidy that enables MLAs, their guests and random visitors to eat cheap food? Well that would be us.

Taxpayers. Stormont is run with money that we cough up.

All of which means that one would have thought that a proposal to end the £500k subsidy would have received a ringing endorsement. But, then again it was Peter Robinson who proposed it.

Even though he claimed he was not speaking as First Minister, it is hardly the case that the other parties would just nod their heads and say yes.

Instead there was a pointless debate in the Assembly chamber and even more pointless debates on the air. The BBC even, helpfully, published what grub MLAs and other Assembly workers could order and how much it costs.

We must confess that, as well as whetting the taste buds, the large soup of the day (96p) the lasagne, garlic bread and spinach (£2.50) and mint chocolate cheesecake (90p) sounds rather tasty in price for a three course meal.

We, however, having salivated over the offerings and prices, have come up with a solution.

First ordinary workers (not party officers or MLAs) should still receive subsidised meals; after all they have to put up with the MLAs. Those subsidised meals will not be subsidised by taxpayers. They should instead be subsidised by MLAs. A ‘Lunch Club Savings Account’ should be created, which each of the 108 MLAs shall contribute a tenner per week (ministers and committee chairs should pay an even fifty per week). This will help keep costs down for porters, ushers, cleaners, security and administrative staff.

Having coughed that up, MLAs will be entitled to eat in the canteen, but pay full price for each meal. If they feel that they cannot then they can bring in a packed lunch.

Unfortunately many appear not to know how to butter bread, place a tasty morsel of meat in between a couple of rounds and put in a lunchbox along with a scrummy snack and something fizzy to wash it all down with.

That would seem a little too much like hard work for our pampered, cosseted and election feverish political representatives.

But at least it would appear that they have something useful in their brief cases.

While we’re at it perhaps MLAs should also pay car parking fees rather than enjoy the perk of a free space; and each and every MLA should be fined when they propose a meaningless and pointless debate in the chamber.

Hey, join in – together we can penalise the MLAs, and come together to solve all the economic woes of our ‘wee country’.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Should I stay or should I go?

AS The Clash sang: “if I leave there will be trouble, if I stay it will be double”… Such may have been the thoughts of Paula Bradshaw as she took the plunge to move from the Ulster Unionist Party to the Alliance Party.

Ms Bradshaw stood as a Westminster candidate on the UUP/Tory ticket, and while she scored credibly did not make a major impact. And, to add insult to electoral injury she was not selected as a candidate by the Ulster Unionists for the forthcoming Assembly election.

Now she claims that the Alliance Party is the party that is really working towards a ‘Shared Future’.

This, at least, will make for fun conversations over the breakfast cereal with partner, former Alliance member, and current Tory Ian Parsley…

Musical Chairs

AS we approach the Assembly elections, the candidacy for each party has become something of a mini-plot before the election kicks fully into gear with all the back-biting and outrageous statements that fill this and every other column from January.

At the very least we will see a new crop of MLAs with many standing aside, such as former SDLP and current Sinn Féin member Billy Leonard.

The Ulster Unionist party has seen several standing MLAs and potential new blood candidates pushed aside. Sitting MLAs George Savage and David McClarty are in jeopardy, new faces such as Harry Hamilton are likely not to appear on the UUP ticket. This leads some to question whether there party will ever seek to reduce the average age of its MLAs below 50+.

And, the SDLP has seen shifts in their Derry powerbase structure with wrangling over who will fill Mark Durkan’s shoes.

Helen Quigley has left ‘public life’ with the BBC claiming there was a disagreement over Mark Durkan’s replacement. Donegal native Pól Callaghan has taken Durkan’s spot in the Assembly until May, with Derry city councillor Mark H. Durkan saying he wants to win a seat rather than be co-opted.

Add into the equation the fact that the DUP has already inserted several new MLAs, who no doubt will be seeking election and there is a very real prospect that the 108 MLAs returned in May will have many new faces – will party officers be able to corral them all, or will there be fresh thinking? We’ll leave you to decide.

Chubby-sized flak jackets needed

IT is honourable – even desirable – for politicians who support military action [we’re talking about Afghanistan here – please feel free to add your political prejudice in this space] to visit the troops at the front.

So Lord Ken Maginnis and David Simpson MP were determined to be able jet out to see the Royal Irish Regiment in Helmend Province to offer support and a few words of wisdom.

But, alas the visit was postponed. The reason? Messers Maginnis and Simpson needed size 54 flak jackets, which the army didn’t have to hand. No one apparently thought that stitching two size 27 flak jackets together might have kept the portly politicians protected, nor did anyone think to mention to the two politicians that the bigger you are, the bigger a target you are.

But, it seems that the Army is scrabbling around to find the XL body armour for the pair to be able to visit the front line before the RIR’s tour of duty is completed.

Which, of course, will be a great relief for the men and women on duty; as they face the daily threat of ambushes, insurgent attacks, grenade and mortar fire, roadside IEDs and booby trapped buildings.

Friday, 29 October 2010

According to my script...

THERE are times when our esteemed political figures in the Northern Ireland Assembly bat around clichés and trot out party lines that it all becomes a wee bit embarrassing for even the most jaded political hack.

Perhaps they would benefit from the advice of Red Ed Milliband’s advisors who suggested that in Prime Minister’s Question Time there should be “cheer lines” for points made.

But then take a serious look around the Assembly chamber when in session: apart from the occasional rant-a-long around budgets there aren’t enough members on the benches to even raise a cheer, let alone a celebratory Mexican wave at having collected another week’s wages.

Milliband’s advisers could have had slightly red faces when their advice was leaked, but such is the chaos of PMQ’s that Ed managed to crack off enough attacks that the BBC led several news bulletins with his jibes on housing benefit.

The collective witticisms in the Assembly on the other hand this week were left to Sammy Wilson, who obviously remembers his days as a teacher in trying to calm down unruly classes.

And let’s face the unsavoury fact here, at the best of times our MLAs are glum looking lot; as the UUP fortunes have declined in recent years it seems that the rest of the parties have taken on the mantle of dour bunch of so-and-so’s. The future isn’t exactly bright, but as Monty Python advised us all, we can always look on the bright side of life.

Shuffling the deck chairs

IT is cruel to say it, but we’re going to say it anyway...Danny Kennedy has about six months to make his mark as a Minister.

Handed the sacred chalice of Minister for Employment and Learning by new party supremo Tom Elliott, he now must deal with the university funding crisis, lengthening dole queues of ex-public sector employees and burgeoning NEETS.

Now NEETs are an unfortunate term for those Not in Employment, Education or Training; which at around certain times of the day seems like half of Belfast and Derry.

So, with Danny a Minister and Tom now chairing the committee that keeps a beady eye on the First Minister and deputy First Minister it’s all change for the UUP.

But in a gesture towards erstwhile rivals, John McCallister has been given the deputy leader mantle, even though he was a fervent backer of Basil McCrea for the leadership of the party.

There is a slightly edgy feeling about the party – yes the leadership uncertainty is over, but with various selections and de-selections, can the new look leadership from the man from the west of the Bann (Tom Elliott) really take hold or is it shuffling the proverbial deckchairs as the ships slowly slides beneath the cold waves of political obscurity.

Half-term hi-jinks

TO listen to some radio reports one would have thought that Northern Ireland had once descended into a Latin American state of civil war.

Yes, cars and buses were burnt, and a bus driver suffered serious injuries, but Rathcoole and Cloughfern rioters were hardly on a scale that rivals Beirut or even Belfast in the 70s and 80s.

And it is half term and the teachers obviously didn’t set enough homework so the youngsters need something to fill their evenings with.

Step forward the brave men of the UVF; men who cite the balaclava as their favourite fashion item, to cajole their young charges to take assertive action.

One can only suspect that they have one or two main reasons for this: either to head off embarrassing PSNI enquiries that the Historical Enquiries Team thought were relevant; or to try and hide drug dealing.

Either way it was slightly amazing that the PSNI ended up being criticised.

First radio talk shows had a go, then amid accusations that the PSNI were heavy handed the DUP announced they were to meet senior officers.

We are slightly amazed – it is the sort of thing that Sinn Féin used to recite parrot like after every riot. Short summary: rioters take to the street; property destroyed; petrol bombs hurled, guns waved by masked cowards...the illogical conclusion is that it was all the police’s fault all along.

Now here’s the obvious solution. After each and every riot – sorry civil disturbance – a PSNI volunteer officer should take the blame and a suspension on full pay while an investigation is carried out to say that he or she should receive a slap on the wrist. Meanwhile thousands upon thousands of pounds are to be poured from the public purse to clean up the damage caused by the rioters with a ‘fair’ proportion of the cash going to the ‘community representatives’ who will make sure that there is restorative justice for those young people who break wind near a pensioner while ignoring said ‘justice’ when the young people are doing their riot work.

Such has it been in the past, so it shall be now. Verily we say to thee: Norn Iron’s a weird wee place.

And, by the way, while 200 people rioted 1,699,800 did not: that last statistic is just in case any foreign direct investors are reading (and if they are we have a few wee projects that could do with a cash boost!)

(Credit for photo - www.bbc.co.uk)

Electric politics

THE Ministers of Environment and Regional Development have come up with a cunning wheeze to stave off global warming and save thousands of pounds of motorist’s fuel bills with a bid to have electric car fuelling points (that is plugs!) across Northern Ireland.

We say yes to this innovative approach...errr well we sort of do! The Minister of the Environment is hardly known as a massive mate of the green movement, nor are his party colleagues such as the Finance Minister. And did the Minister for Regional Development sign up just because he saw the word “green” in the press release?

Whatever the reasoning, we do wonder whether they bothered to ask the brains in the country (those in our universities not doing media or politics degrees) whether this was really the best way forward, or whether hydrogen cell cars were more environmentally friendly?

But we suspect that the real solution to solving the carbon crisis is to find a way to tap the hot air generated by MLAs. Once that is achieved we can even sell-off said hot air and be a net exporter of hot air, as opposed to direct rule days when we were a net importer of hot air.

Tapping the collective carbon dioxide deposits generated by MLAs and culling the dozens of ministerial press release writers will probably save planet earth, by offsetting the entire CO2 production of China and India combined!

However, in the interests of being a ‘right on’, animal friendly, anti-cruelty column we urge that the culling of press officers is done in a humane manner, without the use of clubs or big sticks of any kind. And the journalists unable to cope without a daily fix from Government press releases should have state-sponsored counselling to help them cope!

Friday, 22 October 2010

It’s the end of the world as we know it…

IT’S true - the world as we know it has come to an end. We’re doomed.

There are howls of indignation from those proposing the Spending Review: howls of “it ain’t our fault that we have to sort out the mess”.

Those facing them across the Commons chamber are howling that it’s too much, too fast.

Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland, the parties of our own unique coalition are glum faced with creased foreheads.

Finance Minister, Sammy Wilson, has the look of a latter day money prophet with the words of “I told you so” all but coming out of his mouth.

Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness looked shocked and stunned and began blaming those dastardly Treasury types and slung verbal brickbats at Secretary of State Owen Paterson.

Mr Paterson in turn said he has done what he said he was going to do and Northern Ireland has done really rather well out of the Spending Review.

In the face of such head-turning range of views it is any wonder that listeners and viewers of the mainstream media and readers of newspapers may well be ruminating as to who exactly is right.

In the words of that stalwart of BBC Radio Ulster, Wendy Austin, we’re having to sort out a “snow storm of figures”.

The message is clear though. The days when Norn Iron could rely on a fine wee deal from Westminster are long gone. So, it’s time to knuckle down, sit tight, and plan out how we’re going to have to listen to whinging and whining ahead of next year’s elections: after all many politicians raisin d’étre is to get back into power, not necessarily to sort out the mess.

Weeping and gnashing of teeth

THERE has been much weeping and gnashing of teeth in the office of the Minister for Employment and Learning.

Sir Reg Empey is not angst ridden at the thought of DEL being merged out of existence. He is not rent with doubts over a UUP ministerial reshuffle. Nor is he gazing inward as he comes to terms with not being party leader.

No, Sir Reg is looking at a lost opportunity. For in the face of the budget cuts proposing that there will be thousands upon thousands of redundancies, the only aspect of public service that is set to rise is in the dole offices.

More dole staff to help sign on the redundant public sector workers; even a capital programme to expand dole offices…

So why then should Sir Reg be weeping and gnashing his teeth? Simple: come May some other MLA is going to grab hold of the expanding DEL remit. But hush, Sir Reg! They’ll be left with sorting out the university fees mess, so it’s not all bad!

Integrate, integrate, integrate…

AS Tony Blair said, it is all about education, education, education. And as Peter Robinson said, it’s about a “benign form of apartheid”.

And as the Catholic Church said, we’re all about parental choice. And the media across the board rubbed their hands together.

For, with the vacuum of speculation ahead of the Spending Review, the media had a nice wee juicy story partly grounded in finances and partly grounded in party politics and with barely restrained hints and allegations of below-the-line sectarianism.

Let’s be honest, the administration of education in Northern Ireland is a mess. There are empty desks in some areas, and over-subscribed schools in others. There are several education and library boards for our wee population. There is a population time bomb with rising birth rates. There is a school estate that has parts of it crumbling. Oh, and we have at least four types of schooling.

So, what can our MLAs do about it?

In truth, apart from wittering on and calling in to every radio talk show, there is no sign of any MLA being able to do anything ahead of never.

To show how pointless this all may be one should cast your eyes over the history books.

In 1923, Education Minister Lord Londonderry proposed that religious education should not be part of the curriculum in the newly formed Northern Ireland, but optional after the school day. That way it would have been possible to have fully integrated education, and he thought ‘Twould be a fine thing to have a populace that learned together to seek higher knowledge and all that.

But he reckoned not on the combined forces of the Catholic Church and cassocked campaigners, the massed bible thumping Protestant preachers and the bowler-hatted Orange Order, plus the high and low church Anglicans.

Although he was unable to set an integrated education system in place, he did succeed in uniting almost the entire population behind one cause; preventing it. There are few that have been able to achieve such a unifying effect then or since.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Polling day fun

ON 5 May 2011, Northern Ireland will go to the polls – three polls to be precise!

We will get a chance to put our 1-2-3 beside the names of hopeful MLAs, our 1-2-3 beside names of hopeful councillors and a yes or no for the Alternative Voting system.

Of course, we’re now voting for 26 councils, as opposed to the 11 that there was meant to be under the Review of Public Administration here.

This started the Environment Minister, Edwin Poots thinking... You see each council nominated to a Transition Committee to ease the path to reducing the number of local government bodies.

There were 11 such committees, costing about £150,000 each.

By the stroke of a pen they have now been abolished, saving a healthy £1.65m. And, of course with no prospect of there being a reduction in council numbers over the next four or so years, there’s really no need for the committees anyway.

But, we hope that the Minister makes sure his officials keep all the work of the committees on file, so that in a couple of years time they won’t need to start all over again…

In the meantime the councils say that it is the minister’s fault that the reforms haven’t happened and the Minister is saying that the Executive remains committed to reform of local government.

Sure it’s not like the Assembly to have a row…

BACK in the mists of time – well about a year or so ago - there was a media furore about double-jobbing; that practice whereby a politician can be an MLA and an MP. Some even treble jobbed, as councillors, MLAs and MPs.

The mood of the electorate was crystal clear as evidenced by almost unanimous polling, irate callers to radio shows and countless letters to various editors - not to mention volumes of comment in the blogosphere.

So, one would have hoped, that after the temperature of the electorate was gauged to be red hot over this issue, the politicians in the Big House would have rushed to step down from posts. Some have…and some have not.

And so it came to pass that Independent Unionist MLA, Dawn Purvis, brought a Private Member’s Bill to be debated in the chamber that would bar MLAs from being councillors.

An eminently sensible piece of legislation, one would have thought. It did not strike at the parties that held both Westminster and Stormont seats, and could potentially lead to some new blood beginning their political ascent through the electoral ranks.

While the Bill passed with a minor amendment, it resulted in a heated and, at times acrimonious debate in the chamber.

Such was the mud-slinging in the chamber there is now serious consideration by the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure that it should nominate the 100-yard political acrimony as a future Commonwealth Games event. As well as our boxers bringing back gold medals, the Northern Ireland MLAs would sweep the boards, catapulting us to the top of the medal league table.

The Bill itself now passes to the Further Consideration Stage when MLA can table more changes, if they wish. And we sincerely hope that as MLAs continue to consider the Bill, they will consider asking their constituents the following question:

“In this time of economic hardship do you consider it right and proper that I have two jobs and you have no job at all?”

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Shuffling the deck chairs gets everyone in a spin

YOU can shuffle the deck chairs as the ship lists hard, but ultimately there comes a time when such shuffling only serves to emphasise that all the mixed messages are getting everyone in a spin…and that’s without the spin doctors stepping into the fray!




To review so far:

“The economy is doomed.”

“Oh, no it isn’t!”

“We must fight the cuts.”

“We must take action now to stave off….”

This week saw a media flurry of waffle about a decision that hasn’t been taken yet and no-one will know about until October 20th.

We have the First Minister and deputy First Minister clocking up more air miles to convince the Government that ‘Norn Iron’ is a special case.

We have Peter saying that we need money on capital projects, Martin saying the Brits made a promise to cough up extra cash and the Tories and Lib Dems reneging on that promise.

We have the three devolved administrations issuing a statement that is akin to holding out a begging bowl while turning their tear streaked faces towards the cold Dickensian demeanour of Treasury accountants.

And then we have Nick “Hi, I’m the deputy” Clegg dropping in to hear our politicians’ concerns and promise that the rug will not be pulled out from the Northern Ireland’s economy.

Better still we got a lecture – well seeing as he is a now a mongrel Tory, Lib Dem man, it was more a gentle chiding – that our economy must diversify (sounds suspiciously like what the industry bodies have been saying, but in nicer language).

All this is beginning to get wearisome ahead of what will no doubt be blanket BBC coverage of the Chancellor’s October 20th Spending Review announcement.

But, do not despair! We’ve seen through the motivations! The Sinners want to publicly fight the cuts while privately agreeing them. The DUP want to paint a picture of Northern Ireland driven to the brink, before saying their powerful lobbying saved the day. The Tory and Lib Dem coalition want to say that they have been kinder than they might have been, and then we’ll all realise that whatever way you shuffle the deckchairs we’re all screwed anyway – man the lifeboats!

Analysing a quotation

FORENSIC spin analysis time… On BBC Radio Ulster’s flagship morning news programme Nick Clegg said the following which was later repeated on the Beeb’s news website:

"Over time we clearly need to try and create a NI economy which is more diverse in which you have more people employed in the private sector," he said.

"That's not something you can just wave a magic wand and do overnight.

"We're very aware of that and we're also aware that these are exactly the kind of things we need to consider when we make these decisions about how to deal with the deficit."

First paragraph – sounds quite Conservative, but might be libertarian in a weird sort of way.

Second paragraph – common sense breaks out, but may just be a political aberration, as most people in Government have had their common sense functon permanently removed.

Third paragraph – Nick knows “exactly the kind of things” the Government needs to consider. Well we should bloody well hope so, or he really hasn’t been paying attention. But then comes the “when” word – as in the re-emergence of the blame game…

For those of you who can remember beyond the latest rambling about dire times, the Government offered a deferment of the budgetary slash and burn clearance.

So, when ‘Norn Iron’ and its Celtic cousins reel with fright after October 20th, the Con-Lib Dem coalition can say, well we did try and soften the blow…

In summary – sort your economy out, we have no magic pixie dust, and it’s all your fault anyway, is the essence of the quotation. Thanks Nick. We all fell so much better now!

Friday, 8 October 2010

The run-a-round FMdFM style

DEPUTY First Minister, Martin McGuinness slammed his mate at the top, First Minister Peter Robinson for calling for a reduction of Government departments and MLAs.

Martin was upset that Peter called for just eight Government departments and 75 MLAs, as well as a review of “arms length bodies”. [This in itself is an interesting term – it means a government funded public agency that has the phrase “arms length” attached to create the illusion of independence, but is really to make sure Government is an arms length away when there is a cock-up…]

He argued that if the DUP hadn’t “blocked” the establishment of the Educations and Skills Authority and other such things that occupy the Executive’s waking hours, then we’d already have saved some money.

Then others weighed in offering their opinion.

Peter must have been secretly delighted to have created such a stir.

The art of all comedy is, after all timing, and that is why we half suspect that the First Minister and deputy First Minister sometimes must script their statements behind close doors.

“Hello my good friend Martin! I’ve gotta wee speech to give later on. What about if I call for something that I’ve already called for, and then make some statement about cuts that I’m going to claim were my boys’ ideas all along.”

“Sounds like a plan, Peter. Suppose you would like me to slag you off?”

“Too right my old friend – makes me look good to the party faithful when you say bad things about me”.

“Tell you what Peter. How’s about I go further and throw some mud about the DUP screwing up things.”

“Sounds about right my north-west friend – I reckon that should grab a few more pointless headlines.”

“Right then Peter – fancy a pint?”

“To quote my predecessor, only if it’s a pint of orange juice!”

“Good one, Petey!”

Is this stretching the bounds of reality? If not, they must have this really weird and scary telepathy thing between them….

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

All hail the newts…

IT turns out that the wildlife is to blame….or maybe it’s those dastardly objectors.

An entire episode of The Blame Game will soon need to be dedicated to the debacle that is planning in Northern Ireland.

In the latest legal wrangle over John Lewis’ plans to open a store at Sprucefield the opponents cited risks to wildlife such as newts, badgers and bats.

This provoked the ire of the Environment Minister, Edwin Poots, who lambasted all and a sundry - not least the wildlife.

Now, here is the dichotomy. The Environment Minister is charged, as part of his brief to protect the environment. Also, as part of his brief he is charged with the task of ensuring planning processes proceed as necessary.

Of course, his main objection to the objectors was that the wildlife was being used as an ‘excuse’ to tie the process up in legal wrangles.

Which, he said was responsible for creating a backlog in other issues which could benefit the Northern Ireland economy with thousands of jobs.

With all the high-powered, high-paid barristers; massed legions of lawyers and the serried ranks of civil servants one might suspect that it is all becoming a little bit stupid.

Yes, stupid.

Everyone agrees that economic regeneration is generally a good idea. Everyone agrees that protecting the environment is generally a good idea.

So where is the fight? The fight is about the vested economic interests.

And therein lies the rub. Both sides (those representing city/town centre, and those representing out-of-town shopping) must have calculated the cost versus profit equation in terms of hiring the legal teams.

Minister Poots has nailed his colours to the mast of economic development out-of-town at Sprucefield, with his fellow Lisburn representatives casting a jaundiced eye at Belfast’s political representatives.

And that’s not even to mention the other many planning enquiries that are being held up.

Which may, of course, lead to one question: can the planners not deal with more than one enquiry at a time!

Throughout this week we have tried to obtain a comment from the bats at Sprucefield without success. Equally the badgers have been silent.

However, a newt spoke off-the-record to us. “Insects, worms, slugs – give us the food and we’ll think about moving,” he said. “Do John Lewis give newts discounts or do we have to travel into town for a 10% off the insect range?

“It could make a difference to which way we intervene in court!”


Stadiums up to date and fit for purpose

THE sports debate is a debate that has managed to occupy more time than anyone with a life.

First there was the Maze.

Seemed like a good idea – have a multi-sports stadium, where three sports can gather on any given Friday, Saturday or Sunday. And given how small Northern Ireland actually is it’s not that far to travel.

That was kicked into the long grass, never to be seen again.

As for the compromise solution, it seemed that the Government were to stump up cash to develop Belfast’s rugby, Gaelic and soccer stadiums.

But with all sorts of arguments at the heart of the Irish Football Association the investment in all the sporting stadiums has, according to the Minister of Sports, Nelson McCausland, to be halted.

It has to be said that the logic at holding up two of the three stadium developments for the sake of one is tortuous at best.

We all know that come the Treasury’s Spending Review there will be a drastic reduction in capital budgets.

In other words, after October it may be the case that all three will be ruled offside.

Which, the very, very cynical could say is the game plan all along?

We are of course neither cynical nor favouring one sport over another. We provide cross-community criticism of all sides.

But, ultimately one has to conclude that the sports stadium debate has run on too long – only Sir Alex Ferguson has ever seen more minutes added to a game.

Please, please let’s get the sport started

MLAs across the political divide are hoping - nay praying – for more sport on TV. No, not so there can be more Northern Ireland sports covered on free-to-air TV, but because it may distract from the whole cuts that are coming down the track.

There is the Ryder Cup, the Heineken Cup, and the Commonwealth games: not to mention the Irish League soccer and the mass viewing of the Barclays premiership.

This all means that most people will not be the slightest bit interest in what passes for politics here in Northern Ireland…

Until the October 20 – we’re all doomed – Spending Review announcement is made.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Sure an’ begorrah, could you be lending me a few Euros?

WELL, first you have the Taoiseach accused of being ‘under-the-weather’ in a radio interview, then you notice that your economy hasn’t just been in the water closet, but has been flushed all the way past the U-bend.

This, of course, is unfortunate for our neighbours in the Republic of Ireland, as they come to terms with the costs of bailing out the banks as the Celtic Tiger’s pelt is hung lifeless on the ropes of greed and un-checked lending.

And, it seems that the impact will be felt here too. NAMA – the bad loan bank - have explained that some loans were taken out against property in Northern Ireland with valuations far, far above than their actual worth.

Questions will, no doubt be asked in the House, and after the initial raft of radio and TV coverage there will be learned comments in the newspapers that are too big to wrap chips in.

In the long run, however, we may also gaze at the cuts that have been levelled in the Republic.

The public sector has been slashed, wages frozen and other measures have been implemented and the national debt is still huge.

Will, a similar package of actions be undertaken here in Northern Ireland, and if so, will they fail as spectacularly here?

In the meantime we launch an urgent appeal. If you have recently returned from a Eurozone country and have a few Euro coins left rattling round the spare change drawer please, please send them to Dublin. Every Euro you send can help…

Friday, 1 October 2010

Weeman! Where are all yon weeman?

PAULA’S gone as a candidate. ‘Flash’ Harry Hamilton is gone and the UUP looks set to produce another raft of candidates for election who are very much more of the same.

This could mean that the party is trying to return to its roots, and lots of sensible suits, sensible shoes and a slight greying around the edges of the hair.

If so, it is a desperate gamble that relies on a lot of the allegedly stay-away voters suddenly realising that the 1950s are the political era they want to live in.

Progressive politics and Northern Ireland never sit comfortably together in this wee country.

But even for the Ulster Unionists this all seems a little strange.

Internal political machinations now seem like a series of constituency level ‘night of the slightly blunt, but still long knives’ have taken place.

While other parties could never really accused of having a truly youthful vision of the future, the UUP is in danger of seeming like a relic of the past.

All of those could be seen as a reaction to the failure to retain or gain a Westminster seat in the link with the Conservatives; but how closely were those results analysed in terms of who could gain an extra quota?

Mathematics – how many UUP councillors and MLAs have a Maths GCSE or ‘O’ Level?

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

No sorrows to seek

IF you stand as the leader of a party in Northern Ireland you expect to get a wee bit of grief or a whole lot of it if truth be told. Tom Elliott’s election as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party last week may have been a personal moment of triumph, but within hours he had not his sorrows to seek.

The Minister for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, Michael McGimpsey, was being lambasted for having messed up in the chamber over the increasingly confused and confusing blame game over the chaotic aftermath of the Donagh child abuse case.

McGimpsey had previously been quietly admired and openly loathed for his stout performances defending his turf of health. Despite numerous onslaughts he was seen as handling reasonably well the vagaries of one of the toughest ministerial briefs.

But just a few hours after Elliott and his massed mates from west of the Bann had scored a notable victory, the Minister for Health was on the ropes, having to apologise to an increasingly hostile audience.

As the political vultures sharpened their talons (and all politicians can present this trait no matter their shade of loyalty), the new UUP supremo must have been silently cursing the Gods of politics.

Instead of quietly considering how best to handle a brittle party structure, he was facing a dilemma. Instead of taking the time to consider whether a dignified ministerial shake-up was in order, Mr Elliott is being forced to back his health minister, lest he be considered weak in the face of the onslaught.

The hold on any sort of power is tenuous to say the least, but when electorally weakened at the polls – the only vote that really matters in such tumultuous days for the UUP – strength in power and decisive action resound well amongst the party faithful, even those faithful to the defeated leadership candidate Basil McCrea.

So, the chaos around the UUP and the Donagh abuse case continues. Officials continue to brief ministers, ministers who have to contend with a complex situation, while the stew of pre-May elections brews.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

GAA – sure it’s only a game!

THE whys and wherefores of GAA (the Gaelic Athletic Association) are often lost on unionist politicians. The history and acrimony towards Gaelic games seems at time too ingrained.

No-one seems to recall that despite the flags and blandishments it is after all only a game.

True, it is a game that at times has trappings designed to wind up unionists. But by reacting with a sense of injury, even seeming as if it is a trap question posed by mischievous presenters, it is an issue that unionist leaders appear never to be able to cope with.

So, when new UUP leader Tom Elliott refused to countenance going to see Down in the All-Ireland final before his personal election night, or offer them words of encouragement, it was a case of lighting the blue touch paper and retreating to a safe distance.

For Mr Elliott it was a no-win situation. Be seen to show the slightest inclination towards backing Down (would it have been the same if Tyrone were in the All-Ireland final?) and some core backers would have recoiled. Be too intransigent and he would be seen as back woods unionist.

So, the MLA tried to steer a middle ground; no outright words to the GAA men, and no real complaints about the issue.

But, one wonders if Mr Elliott could have pulled a rabbit out of the hat with a simple statement along the lines of “well I’d rather a Northern Ireland team won!”

Of course, as it was there ensued a war of words within the UUP. Trevor Ringland said he would hand in his UUP membership card if Mr Elliott didn’t try and show the hand of friendship by attending a GAA game, while Lord Drumglass, Ken Maginnis, said Mr Elliott wouldn’t be going any time soon as he was of the ‘never on a Sunday’ religious persuasion.

We have a suggestion for Mr Elliottt: agree to attend a GAA game; make sure it is on a Saturday, make sure the PSNI are fielding a team; make sure they are playing against weak opposition; and make sure you have time to head off to an Irish League soccer/football game after the final whistle, and catch the Scottish football on Match of the Day (using the BBC Scotland Sky feed). Then issue a statement saying that whilst you enjoyed the GAA you thought that rugby was a more manly sport.

In a stroke the doubters could be silenced, your support for the PSNI demonstrated, and a controversy over which sport was the toughest would dominate The Nolan Show for weeks.

Alas, sport has become, as too often, a political football. Oh, how we sport fans in Northern Ireland look enviously at our cousins in England where a simple soccer star sex scandal can keep the politics off the news pages!

Monday, 27 September 2010

Turkeys voting for Christmas

SOMETIMES one has to wonder at the contradictions in the news agenda. Last week a local newspaper reported on a £50m spend by the Northern Ireland Executive departments on consultancy services from the private sector.

Then, with no sense of irony the CBI called for urgent cuts in the public sector.

Now, we neither know, nor particularly care how many of the local management consultancies are members of the CBI, but if there is a slash and burn policy in the public sector we can guarantee that no-one is going to be in a great hurry to approve spending on external services.

And, the elephant in the room is that the public sector spends an awful lot of money buying services and consultancy from the private sector.

So, if there are drastic cuts in public sector budgets, there will be less to spend on the sort of things that the private sector offers to the public purse.

Which either means that the CBI can’t see the hurt they could cause themselves, or their members are looking to see what services and quangos they can ‘suggest’ would be ripe for privatisation.

One of the consultant’s reports was on a red meat strategy for Northern Ireland. We’re not sure (nor, we guess is anyone who was not intimately involved in the red meat sector) what such a strategy hoped to achieve. But for our part we wonder whether we can help this strategy. As such, we are prepared to eat a cow, two sheep and three pigs to support it... provided the consultants guarantee that our gluttony is part of the solution to aid economic recovery!

Storm in a papal teacup

THE recent visit to Britain by Pope Benedict will be remembered for many things... atheist protests, Free Presbyterian protests, adulation from the faithful and blanket BBC news coverage.

But as we are such an insular little part of the wider European faith scene, Northern Ireland’s self-styled awkward squad members had to create their own wee row over the Papal visit.

Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness declined to drop in to see the Pope. Therefore, someone had to make a wee protest about that, with Dolores Kelly stepping into the fray.

She questioned the decision of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to go to an event in Belfast rather than hanging out with the great and the good and nattering with the Pope.

First things first: the First Minister was never, ever going to head to see the Pope. Please remember Ms Kelly that he is leader of the DUP not of the Democratic Unionist Papist Party. Second, it was a state visit to the UK and not something Marty was going to sign up to, as that may – just maybe – led to someone saying that Mr McGuinness was backing the Imperialist British swine.

While the accusations batted back and forth the deputy First Minister played his trump card by saying that he had it from some good authority or another that the Pope intended to drop in and say hello to Northern Ireland sometime in 2012.

Peter Robinson managed to avoid an audible gasp, but one suspects he was checking to see if someone had issued an invite to the Vatican while he was having a lunchtime doze...