Friday, 30 April 2010

Only days left

THE assorted 108 candidates standing for Westminster have now less than a week to convince us all that they and their parties are the ones to represent the 1.7m+ inhabitants of this ‘wee country’.

The election broadcasts are all but over (thank goodness!) and candidates are now girding their loins for a final flurry of knocking on doors and chasing down each and every media opportunity that is going.

But who are the real targets for the candidates. On the unionist side are the DUP seeking to hold off the TUV and Conservatives and Unionists to shore up their vote. Within the nationalist community is it a straight tussle between Sinn Féin and the SDLP to see who can gain/lose in a particular constituency? Does the Alliance Party want to stave off Green Party challenges to core votes?

The real task ahead for all the Northern Ireland parties is to win over, not the floating voter, but the apathetic constituent who has no plans to vote.

The televised debates in the UK have by the nature of their prime time status inflated voter interest, but will it be enough here in Northern Ireland to increase turn-out.

While next week we’ll be looking at who wins what and where, everyone should be keeping a wary eye on turn-out. That may give a true indication of the level of interest in politics here.

Plans to move on

PLANNING officials are on their way out of planning offices to a smattering of civil service departments.

Environment Minister, Edwin Poots, says he wants to make sure that the 269 staff are re-deployed as a result of lower planning application receipts.

He wants to make sure there are posts for them to go to before other departments started cutting back and looking to re-deploy staff.

Stay with us here for a moment…the implication is clear. There will be redundancies in the civil service. Now, is this an indication that there will be cuts forced upon other departments? And, if so, where and when will these cuts take place.

But, and here is the rub, if a civil servant loses their job then there is a redundancy payment to be paid. After that there comes the cost of the former civil servant sign on for Job Seeker’s Allowance. This means more staff may be needed in dole offices…

The parties in the Executive have a difficult time ahead if they are to make so-called cuts.

However, we have a wee nagging doubt about the ability of any party to make sure that cuts take place. As anyone working on year end public sector accounts should know, come March there is a mad dash to spend all the money, or else you’ll lose it next year. Will the same apply to the Block Grant? Come March 2011, will NI plc panic next February to spend, spend, spend lest the Treasury wield the axe.

Water, water everywhere…now pay up!

START putting the pennies and pounds in the piggy banks because we’re all about to pay for H2O.

Given the perilous state of the economy (copyright of any political party in opposition) the option of further deferment of water charges in Northern Ireland looks like being taken off the table.

Finance Minister, Sammy Wilson, has hinted that the water-tax holiday will end shortly.

But that means the decision will have to be taken in the weeks and months after the Westminster poll. When, of course, we’ll be preparing for the 2011 Assembly election.

Executive ministers would appear to agree that water charges are inevitable; but are they? Will ministers have the courage to go to the electorate saying we’re going to introduce what are in all but name more taxes.

Who said what when the microphone was still on

GORDON Brown's 'Bigot-Gate' clanger dominated the headlines midweek. But what have the local politicians been saying off microphone?

When Catriona Ruane and Margaret Ritchie were on radio this week debating the state of South Down, both were at pains to say that they had a 'working relationship' and that they both 'worked round the Executive table'.

But did they sit down for a natter together beforehand? And when the radio microphones were turned off did they grab a quick cuppa together before hitting the campaign trail?

And round the Executive table, when the 'serious' business of government is put away, do the ministers have a catch up on the football scores, the weather and whether the election polls actually mean anything?

The populace wants, nay demands, that the Sky News's sound team mic-up the Northern Ireland political elite so we can hear what they really think.

On the other hand, would they say anything that was of remote interest to those of us who are not sad political anoraks? Which, of course, touches on the question - will Northern Ireland politicians ever say anything relevant?

What has been remarkable about the past couple of weeks campaigning has been the outstanding ability of many of the candidates to comment, during a Westminster election, on issues that have been devolved. Health, education, agriculture and policing have all been discussed ad nauseum.

Either they view the electorate as completely stupid on such constitutional matters, or they slavishly follow an agenda set by the media or others - whatever you think, just try not think about it too much: otherwise you might end up really, really considering what way to cast your vote.