Friday, 15 January 2010

Mental health issues

EVERYONE, no matter their political hue must hope that Iris Robinson recovers from her current mental health issues.

It has, however, raised the issue of MPs with mental health problems. Under current legislation an MP with a mental illness can be booted out.

Various charities have rightly pointed this out as wrong. Not only is it discriminatory towards a swathe of the population, but any competent psychiatrist looking at the behaviour of out MPs might decide that the booing, hear, hear shouting lot should be sectioned.

The power of the internet!

THE much heralded and much damned interweb has been a boon for and the bane of politicians.

As the evidence from the US proved, a well run online campaign can lead to electoral victory.
But when the political chips are stacked against a politician, or that politician is mired in a ‘scandal’ the world wide web becomes a voracious beast, sucking up rumour and innuendo; a place where leaks can be contrived or accidental.

The name of Iris Robinson’s alleged teenage lover was online well before Spotlight aired, and mainstream media stories are trailed before the prints roll.

All this heralds the dawn of a new age for politics in Northern Ireland: in previous years a spin doctor had only political correspondents and the corridor gossip of Stormont to contend with.
Now they have to deal with the great unwashed even when there’s no election afoot!

Which means that there are potentially hundreds of thousands of people who can freely express their views and opinions at all hours of the day; people who can pass on stories within seconds; and people who can spread allegations before lawyers have woken up.

While the risk of these allegations finding their way into court always exists, the damage to a politician can be extensive before the courts or mainstream media have considered the story.
So, we may have dawning upon us the age when a spin doctor’s job is to co-ordinate responses, monitor blogs and forums and generally make sure his party masters have a strategic presence and plan for the world wide web.

Look forward to advertisements reading “communications officer required; must be a political anorak and a web geek”.

Planning upheaval…and it’s not RPA

FOR years local councils have had a consultative voice in the planning process.

The plan under the Review of Public Administration is for planning to become the responsibility of local councils.

There already were some question marks against the new 11 councils taking over planning, but against the context of the furore surrounding Iris Robinson’s alleged access to property developers’ cheque books the entire planning process has come under the spotlight.

A recent meeting of the Assembly’s environment committee concluded that it needed to write to the DUP Environment Minister about what role the committee should have in any investigations into the controversy surrounding the Robinson issue.

Which can only lead to a reasonable person to ask how many investigations are needed? Westminster, the Assembly Ombudsman, Castlereagh council…is this a case of investigation envy.

Of course, it isn’t just the Robinson family that has been hitting headlines. The Adams family has had its share of unwelcome time under the glare of the media spotlight, with allegations of unreported allegations against Liam Adams, brother of Sinn Féin party leader Gerry Adams.

Ian Paisley Junior has asked the Assembly Ombudsman to investigate whether Gerry broke any rules. Sure what’s another investigation among friends? After all, if policing and justice is devolved, our MLAs will need something to talk about.

The best laid plans of mice and men…

YOU can plan for every eventuality then something comes out of left field and throws all your carefully constructed contingencies into chaos.

No matter what your political hue, no matter your community cry, it seems we now destined to live with that worst Chinese curse – to live in interesting times.

The best laid plans are awry, and now plans must be revived, amended and ultimately thrown away on a daily, if not hourly basis.

The devolution of policing and justice has been heralded for too long as the deal breaker, the final piece.

At the turn of the year few could have suspected that certain local politicians were being watched by an ever voracious media, preparing to unleash a storm of stories that some have dubbed the ‘perfect political storm’.

And, at the time of writing no-one, except those cloistered behind closed doors at Stormont Castle, can tell how close we are to witnessing the devolution of policing and justice or how close we are to real political collapse.

Monday, 11 January 2010

We’re all doomed (again)

THE week just gone has seen unprecedented political events in Northern Ireland – UDA decommissioning their armaments, a cancelled Sinn Féin Ard Chomhairle, rows in education, the nearing conclusion of the SDLP leadership race…oh and a certain Spotlight investigation too!

The ramifications of the BBC current affairs show will reverberate for some time to come, with the implications being at the forefront of all our politicians' thinking as election time draws ever closer.

The Westminster poll will be a hard test for all concerned, particularly for the largest party in the Executive.

For the DUP, the Robinsongate affair is something they wish could be locked up in the closet, but now it is out and the latest set of allegations splashed across the Sunday newspapers, the pressure will now doubt grow by the day.

By the time you read this, it is impossible to predict what the situation will be. Between the time fingers were first put to keyboard and editing, Iris Robinson had been sacked by the DUP and she had announced that she was quitting Westminster and Stormont in the coming week. And, it emerged that Sinn Féin Chief Whip Carál NíChuilín has put an emergency motion to the Speaker calling on the First Minister to make a statement today at the Assembly’s first plenary session of 2010.

The words that were whispered softly not too long ago – collapse, direct rule, joint north south authority – are now being aired like a dirty secret that was kept from the voters, lest they panic like an unfettered horse on a riverside bridle path.

Robinsongate aside, the elephant in the room is policing and justice. The likelihood of devolving policing and justice any time soon has become as distant as the possibility of Peter Robinson having a quiet relaxing week.

So where does this leave the Assembly? Teetering ever closer to the brink of collapse? Ever more riven with division? Lacking leadership? Or just plain messed up, as usual?

What if Robinson resigns? Will Sinn Féin renominate Martin McGuinness as deputy First Minister or force an Assembly election?

Secretary of State Shaun Woodward is sounding ever more desperate as the days go by. Why? Well he clearly wants the Assembly to last until he can be shot of the entire thing and quit – if he holds his seat – and enjoy a nice easy time on the backbenches. Instead, he faces the prospect of becoming another 'direct rule' Secretary of State, leading a ministerial team tasked with running of Northern Ireland and convening a round of inter-party talks somewhere well away from Northern Ireland.

One possible way out is for the Executive to get around the table and agree that they’ll never agree for the foreseeable future. The next Assembly election would then be set to coincide with the Westminster poll. We can all sit back and errr... enjoy five months or so of politicians slagging each other under the pretext of electioneering.

That way they can all vent their spleen and come back to their seats spent of invective and ready to behave like rational adults.

The danger

THE current wayward nature of politics here has a very real danger. That danger is not in some esoteric argument or party political statement. That danger is to real men and women.

This was evoked on Friday when a PSNI officer suffered critical injuries when dissident republicans planted a bomb under his car.

When the MLAs and MPs issue their statements and rage against the wind, they would do well to remember the cost of a political vacuum. Next week, next month, next year most of them will still be facing the cameras, presenting to their party conferences and cashing in expenses cheques. For this police officer and potentially many others, there will be, at best, years of painful recovery, adjustments to family life, coping with trauma and trying to rebuild a shattered life.

That the so-called men who slunk in the dead of night to plant the device pretend to be fighting for something would be laughable if it was not so tragic. Their day will never come. Their day has past. The twenty-first century does not bother with the prattlings of those who still believe a nation state can be moulded by the gun and bomb.

International institutions, a shrinking world and global issues lower their cause to the level of gangsterism.

If there is an Assembly election, as well as the Westminster poll, in the coming months, the level of their support will be apparent. They haven’t any.

On the brighter side

A SUBSTANTIAL amount of guns have left the streets of Northern Ireland. The UDA decommissioning of weapons has happened and witnessed verified.

The efforts of all concerned are to be welcomed.

While the UDA leadership will be ruing the timing of their announcement in the middle of the Robinsongate media scrum, it does raise the question of the Protestant working class vote.

The PUP’s Dawn Purvis has shown that the mature politics of David Ervine were not just a one-off. The DUP reliance on urban votes to buttress the support from its rural strongholds is no longer a certainty.

Will the anti-power sharing TUV be able to capitalise? Can the party's leader Jim Allister project his presence beyond north Antrim? And, if so, will he for once break a smile!

Smile, things can only get worse

EDUCATION, education, education was what Mr Blair promised voters in 1997. Such promises ring hollow here in Northern Ireland where the post-primary crisis has faded away from the headlines, if not from the hearts and minds of pupils and parents.

The latest phase of the education joke, or system as those involved endearingly call it, is the Education Skills Authority.

Due to open for business at the dawn of 2010, the ESA exists in a state of limbo as the necessary legislation is not place. Agreement within the Executive to let the Education Bill proceed on its merry way through the Assembly has not been forthcoming. Sound familiar?

A new run of the TV series, The Blame Game, will so be soon be aired, featuring Sinn Féin and the DUP finding new and interesting ways to blame each other. Policing and justice, education, the colour of the sky, whether Einstein’s equations will be proven by the Large Hadron Collider, are all in the melting pot.

Meanwhile in other news…

THE leadership contest in the SDLP has disappeared off whatever low-level political radar it was on for all but party members and political anoraks.

The early surge for Margaret Ritchie seemed to have her well placed, but Alasdair McDonnell has fought back. Despite a lukewarm reception for his manifesto in some quarters, the announcement that Alban Maginness has thrown his support behind Alasdair will make the SDLP party conference in February at least interesting!

Unfortunately the reality will be that whoever emerges victorious will have to deal with the question: “So what do you think about this week’s controversy?”

Controversy dogging politics

THEY’RE not going away you know! No, not the Provos – rather controversies. Liam Adams is already an albatross like presence for brother Sinn Féin supremo Gerry.

Whether Liam ever faces extradition or prosecution is still very much up in the air.

That his alleged offences occurred at a time when child protection regulations were in the process of being strengthened is a moot point. In the wake of the McElhill and O’Neill tragedies, the already increasingly robust vetting and checking system is set to get even stronger.

The Assembly’s Health Committee (yes there has been some real work going on up there!) has agreed that an investigation into the systems and agencies around the McElhill case should take place.

That means the review of vetting by the NI Children’s Commissioner, the Toner review of the McElhill case, increased scrutiny of the Roman Catholic Church, and several pieces of legislation will be further complemented and Northern Ireland will have some of the most comprehensive child protection legislation and policies in Europe.

Which is more than can be said of Sinn Féin record keeping on where and when Liam Adams was actually involved in the party?