Friday, 14 May 2010

Super councils grounded

IS it a bird, is it a it’s a SUPERCOUNCIL. Leaping obstacles of bureaucracy in a single bound, laser like eyes spying out inefficiencies, your local friendly Super Council is here to make sure you get the services you need when you need them; a lean, mean, serving the ratepayer machine.

Well that was the plan. Northern Ireland’s existing 26 local councils were to be slashed down to a manageable 11 new ‘super’ councils, but it seems that they may not be in place for the May 2011 local government elections.

The existing councils can’t agree with the Department of the Environment over plans for a single body to manage back office functions and the DUP and Sinn Féin appear to be haggling over boundaries.

So another plank of the Review of Public Administration (RPA) falls by the wayside, along with the much-vaunted Education and Skills Authority.

The RPA, complete with its staff and remit now have existed almost as long as some councillors have held seats – and in many cases longer.

Reports last year variously put the cost of the RPA at between £90m and £120m since 2002, but while staff try and come up with solutions and juggle boundaries and terms that are arcane to the rest of the population (co-terminosity anyone?) there develop yet more logjams across departments.

It is improbable that the Executive would let this roll on any longer; but hey, don’t despair because it is the Northern Ireland Executive where decisions can take on glacial speed on a good day; where Executive members regularly congratulate themselves for actually making it into the same room, let alone making a decision.

In-tray busting out all over

OWEN Paterson has maintained an air of unflappability since becoming Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, fielding media questions and batting away awkward situations with the calmness of one who has been personally grooming himself for a seat in Cabinet.

In the 80s the position of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was one Tories looked upon as a chance to get the feet under the Cabinet table before moving on to other things; or it was a unique Thatcher punishment for those that found themselves disagreeing with the Iron Lady.

What Mr Paterson hopes to gain as SoS remains to be seen, but he can be assured of an in-tray that is already bursting at the seams before he can get all cosy in the official residence.

The Presbyterian Mutual Society, the Saville Inquiry, public spending cuts – just some of the issues that the Northern Ireland party leaders have been raising as they welcome him to Northern Ireland as the SoS.

Beware the welcomes of politicians who come with welcomes, as it may be the things that are not being mentioned that prove the trickiest.

Leaving aside the big security issues and the need to clarify who does what and when on security, there are also the ongoing public enquiries and the ever popular electoral topics.

Add in to that mix all those nasty hangovers from the Good Friday Agreement, like the Bill of Rights. The said Bill has been under consideration for so long now that it makes the Review of Public Administration’s delays seem like a mere hiccough.

The Tory position on a Bill of Rights and similar legislation has always been one where enthusiasm can be measured in terms of damp cloths rather than any warmth.

But Mr Paterson can expect to feel the heat of the wrath of the voluntary and community sectors as they bring their liberal indignation to bear on any Conservatives plans to axe the Bill of Rights, not to mention Sinn Féin’s views on the matter. More importantly...what will the party coalition partners, the Lib Dems, have to say to axing the human rights legislation ‘in waiting’.

We would say that the public demands an answer, but they seem more concerned with the potential for cuts in services.

Cuts, cuts, cuts – nothing at all like that

DEAR patient – please just be a wee bit more patient in A&E. And if you want to further your employability prospects, we hope you don’t mind travelling a few extra miles to college...

There are those, of a cynical bent who would say that the immediate changes to A&E services at Whiteabbey and Mid-Ulster Hospitals are the first signs of cuts in the health service. Far be it for us to contradict the Northern Trust, which says that changes in services are for the benefit of patients.

And, only the most jaundiced of eyes would look on the closure of seven campuses of the Northern Regional College as anything other than the necessary rationalisation given increasing costs and diminishing incomes.

But are these the harbingers of doom? Are these the harvesters of sorrow in the tough spending rounds ahead?

After all, each and every credible political party going into the Westminster election warned of the need to slash public spending. At the same time, all Northern Ireland departments and their next step agencies have been told that they must make efficiency savings.

Now that is surely the most wonderful euphemism yet. It has been kicking around the political block for some time now and the laughter would echo round the Assembly corridors even louder if it wasn’t so serious.

The new Secretary of State, Owen Paterson has pledged that redressing the balance between the public and private sectors is a long term – 25 year – goal; no doubt partially boosted by government grants and supply contracts...i.e. public sector spending. In the meantime each and every public sector worker will be looking over their shoulder and wondering whether their jobs are going to be there in a few months.

Thankfully, our new Cabinet of the newlyweds are leading by example with the news that each and every minister is taking a 5% pay cut. That’s nice of them, sharing the pain and all that. The PM will be taking a pay cut from his salary of almost £200,000 and Cabinet ministers will have their wage of nearly £150,000 cut.

So, when a public sector employee, be they nurse, doctor, fire fighter, or police officer looks askance at the thought of loosing their job, or the prospect that 2011 will see pay freezes and cuts, they can be heartened by the thought that the PM, his chums and his coalition partners are roughing it too!

Reality check anyone?

DAVID Ford is off to a good start in winning over the public with a challenge to the legal profession. While he has not gone as far as Shakespeare in King Henry the Sixth (“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers”) he seems to have offended the barristers to such an extent that one would think that they are under threat of capital punishment from the Minister of Justice.

Already barristers have been withdrawing from defence teams at the thought that the hourly rate they receive from Legal Aid (paid by the NI Court Service from the taxes of everyone) for complex cases has been cut from £180 to £152.50 per hour.

The poor dears – how will they ever cope. Yes, of course they do a fine job and they are without doubt some of the finest legal minds when confronted with the intricacies of legal arguments. But with such fine, analytical minds - nay even with brains that can cope with reading legal tomes of mind-numbing dreariness – have they never strayed into the real world?

One must of course take into account that barrister’s work is not regular (unless they snag a public inquiry then all bets are off!). Let’s say that a barrister is only able to get a couple of hours work a day. That would be £305 for that day. Then let’s say they are only able to get three days work in a week. That would be £915 for that week, and £3,660 for the month. After tax, accountants, taking into account the days that courts close and the cost of buying the silly - sorry necessary – wig and gown, they’d be lucky to clear £2,000 per month. Which for part time work isn’t bad.

So, how can you and I help the barristers in the face of David ‘The Merciless’ Ford’s swingeing cuts? Well, if you are in a position where you may be about to commit a crime (and we don’t, of course, condone any breaking of the law whatsoever!) make sure that your crime is a particularly complex one, so that when you go along to get your Legal Aid sorted out you can rest easy; even with their pay cut you’re helping an impoverished barrister make ends meet.

In the meantime, we, with all sincerity, ask that the barristers of Northern Ireland head to their nearest GP for a reality check-up.

Too early for jokes

IT is too soon in the life of the Con-Dem coalition to make jokes. After all, we’ll have five years to do that!

What exactly is a party source

THE SDLP leadership of Margaret Ritchie is barely underway and there are rumblings of discontent over various appointments she is making, such as Alex Attwood who replaces her at the Social Development Ministry.

The BBC reported nagging complaints from party sources about the Ritchie leadership.

One can spend a lot of time analysing these ‘rumblings’. However, perhaps it is more productive to define what exactly a ‘party source’ is. We have a sneaking suspicion that the party sources the BBC and others are referring to are those that didn’t get jobs or didn’t vote for Ms Ritchie in the first place.

Which, of course is understandable on a human level, but may be a wee bit short-sighted in terms of politics. We are less than a year away from Assembly and local council elections. Will the electorate’s memories be of a party that retained three Westminster seats, or will they be of a party where there is back-biting and animosity?

It would seem like a good time for party grandees to sit down the troops and explain a few home truths about elections. Should that fail then it will be time to get the kiddies together in a wee circle and explain that you can’t always get what you want.

Should that fail errant members can always look to the UUP as a model for future electoral success...

Let’s play happy families!

WHEN it comes to agreement and accord it seems that the ministers who serve the people of Northern Ireland set less than a shining example to the populace.

A case in point is the ICAN centre in Ballynahinch. This accredited centre, which helps young children with difficulties gain the communications and other skills to enter mainstream education, is faced with closure with funding being withdrawn.

Now, the Minister for Education says it is the fault of the Minister for Health, Social Services and Public Safety. The Minister for Health, Social Services and Public Safety says it is the fault of the Minister for Education. They also, variously, blame the education and library board, Executive colleagues who have imposed cuts and anyone’s granny who once spoke up about real life issues.

In a debate earlier this week, the Assembly heard much about the good work undertaken at the ICAN centre. It heard how lives had been changed. It heard how much can be saved through early intervention.

The debate, however, did not give any indication of a solution.

While ministers wrangled and argued the victims are not those who have had points scored against them in the heat of debate. The victims are the children and families who will no longer have a service.

In other words, those whom the Ministers claim to serve. Has the notion of public service been sacrificed at the altar of a poor blame game? Unfortunately that seems to be the case.

You see there was once this school...

THERE was once a nice wee primary school on the outskirts of north Belfast. Pupils were generally happy and it fed many children into a nearby post-primary school.

Then some nasty people started a fire that ended up with the school being demolished.

Pupils, parents and staff were understandably distraught. Then along came a Minister. No, not a Minister of the church, a Minister in the executive instead! This Minister said that there would be a nice new shiny school built to replace the burnt out shell.

So, the thought of the children squatting in the nearby high school for a wee while wasn’t so bad for the children.

Then the Minister said that all building work was under review and the new primary school might not get built any time soon.


Of course, times are tough and there are a lot of schools needing new buildings and refurbishment, so a review is necessary. And, work on the nice new shiny Irish language schools is started before the review is underway.

Cue much political point-scoring. But one has to at least admire the fact that a Sinn Féin MLA took to the steps of Stormont in the face of an irate group of parents, mainly from the Rathcoole housing estate, which has never been regarded as an estate where republican politicians are ever going to receive a favourable response.

It is, however, less than admirable that the parents – and the pupils who also made the journey – received no solace, no news on a new school build, or even a realistic timescale for the review’s completion.

It’s so nice when politics works, and so horrible when it all comes collapsing around the feet of the ordinary men, women and children. Still, at least we have a resolution to the post primary school transfer conundrum. Errr, well maybe not!

Monday, 10 May 2010

That Friday Feeling...

THANK crunchie its Friday, murmured more than one politician stumbling from a count centre, blinking into the glare of sodium street lights and the incessant pops of photographers flashguns.

Northern Ireland's political landscape used to have an air of stable predictability about it. McGinty's Goat would wait patiently to see which unionist party would place a sash around its neck; while on the nationalist side the 'blessed peacemakers' of the SDLP/Sinn Féin (delete as you see fit!) would compete for the green sprig that they could place on McGinty's Goat.

Of late, there have been increasingly strident claims amongst the more 'shouty' type of unionist to represent the party with the right to bestow the sash on the abovementioned goat.

Alas, such claims were put to the test at Thursday’s elections. Awkward things elections. They're not like Radio Ulster talk shows, who wait for the numpties and bampots to comment; often welcoming and even encouraging the claims and outlandish statements of the 'shouty' type of unionist.

Fortunately, talk show appearances are not reliable indicators of the will of the electorate. For one, most of electors are at work, even those in the public sector.

Which, of course means that the Traditional Unionist Voice was a voice that most of the unionist electorate didn’t bother to listen to when casting their vote? The proportion of airtime given to a party that has, as yet, failed at every electoral outing, gave lie to the reality.

When the European election saw TUV supremo and Jim Allister QC snag 66,000 votes, he had high hopes of grabbing at the very least the North Antrim Westminster seat. Instead, he was trounced, and across Northern Ireland the party received just 26,000 votes.

Barristers generally get paid no matter whether the result is a win, lose or draw. But in politics, generally it is winning that counts.

Meantime it is rumoured that all TUV phone numbers have been taken off the Stephen Nolan Show's speed dialler...

Running on empty

CRUEL pundits and satirists have said that the Conservatives and Unionists 'project' is now running on empty...Reg Empty that is!

By the time you are reading our next Northern Ireland Political Update, there may be an empty chair where there once was an Ulster Unionist leader, as pressure mounts for the party to find a direction that won’t see them disappear into political oblivion.

One joke doing the rounds asks: What is the difference between an Ulsterbus and the Ulster Unionists? The answer, of course, is that the Ulsterbus has seats.

Which is more than a little nasty. Reg in South Antrim came close to taking the seat off the DUP. But his fate was much like his big brothers in the Conservatives. Close, but not close enough.

The 3.6% swing from DUP to Reg meant he was still more than a thousand votes shy of toppling the Rev William McCrea. The gamble didn't pay off.

While the Conservatives huddle in corners discussing whether they need a (C)legg up to achieve power, thoughts at Central Office have yet to turn to the failed New Front. When they do, will they be comforted by the thought of a few Assembly seats to build on for the future, or will they wash their hands of the whole thing?

Long shot

IN football the most spectacular goals are when a midfielder picks up the ball some 30 yards out from goal and with deft power and accuracy delivers it at pace to the one point in goal where the keeper can't reach.

The crowd rises in ecstatic joy etc etc.

But behind such glorious long distance goals is much hard work - the awareness to spot the opportunity, the vision to be in the right place for the pass, and the ability to see when defenders are backing off.

And, of course, it the defenders lack of ability to spot the threat, the fact that they are distracted by other players and the keeper being that crucial half yard out of position.

Okay, that's the football metaphor stretched to the limit to try and explain Naomi Long's defeat of Peter Robinson.

Amidst the Alliance Party euphoria it is easy to miss the fact that this was a 22.9% swing from the DUP.

While Ms Long has been at pains to point out that there was no negative campaign against Robinson from Alliance, the simple truth is that there did not need to be.

The other factor which must be taken into consideration is the perfect storm conditions. Robinson was on the defensive amid the media stories, and Naomi Long was just ending a year as Lord Mayor of Belfast.

Even the perfect favourable storm means nothing, if it cannot be capitalised on. And to return to the footballing metaphor hard work set up the chance. Long and her team - oft regarded as bit players in the bear pit of Stormont - worked hard at constituency level. And there is a lesson for all elected representatives - the harder the work, the greater the reward from the electorate.

Economic slump source found

A NEW macroeconomic source for global downturn has been found - the cost of recounts in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. In fact, a new School of Economics has been founded in the University of Ulster's Big Sums Faculty.

An example of their work to date: the largest known number at present is a 'yotta'. That is a 1 followed by 24 zeroes. Following research at the university, this is to be revised upwards as mathematicians now know the permutations on votes in Fermanagh and South Tyrone are innumerable.

The new largest number will be dubbed a 'Gildernew', which is a 1 followed by as many zeroes as you can feasibly think of while watching another TV report of a recount of votes from Ballygobackwards.

The drain on global resources from these recounts has now been calculated as causing a shortage in worldwide supplies of calculators, logarithm books and abacuses.

Meanwhile, David Cameron reckons that an early election must be avoided at all costs as another poll in Fermanagh and South Tyrone will utterly destroy any hopes of cutting public spending - it may in fact cost another trillion.

The Liberal Democrats have rejected a Tory compromise of nuking Fermanagh and South Tyrone, but only because the Lib Dems promised that Trident just had to go. "Even if we wanted to, if we use one of these big bombs we'd have to buy another one....still it might be worth it to save the world's electoral resources," said one source close to Clegg. In the meantime, they are threatening to send Lembit Opik as this may cause local farmers to lock up all daughters of voting age and he has nothing to do with his vastly increased spare time.

Any wheelbarrows handy?

WHILE calculators were at a premium in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, it was wheelbarrows that were much in demand at the North Down count.

Lady Sylvia Hermon's landslide was such that extra weighing scales were brought in to count her votes by the tonne as this was easier than having to confirm the 21,181 that will see her returned to Westminster.

Shock news: Ruane really isn't liked

CATRIONA Ruane must be wondering what she has to do to be liked. The pioneering Sinn Féin education minister is committed to reforming our archaic system, is fiercely determined to see every school as a good school, and is a woman driven in the hope that each and every pupil will be conversant in Irish - indeed her fervour should surely be rewarded at the ballot box!

But no, those ungrateful wretches prefer an SDLP housing minister and leader. C'mon it's not like Social Development is anywhere near as important as education; it's only handing out benefit cheques and not building any houses...

Even the unionist secret desire to get on well with the soft spoken education minister was somehow repressed as a cross-community series of votes went to Margaret Ritchie rather than the unfairly vilified Ms Ruane...who would have thought it.

In other election news...

In other election news - well there isn't any. Gerry got West Belfast, Mark got Foyle, Sammy got East Antrim, Jim got Strangford and several BBC and UTV reporters got hallucinations as a result of sleep deprivation.

Anoraks at the ready

ANORAKS not absorbed by the ongoing ‘will he won't he’ Clegg watch (i.e. most of the country) are poring meticulously over every percentage, every swing and every shift in voting patterns, because next year there's an Assembly election and possibly a local government election.

We can hardly contain our glee…err you know what we mean. We are political anoraks and proud of it! And it seems we're in good company as more than a hundred thousand viewers in Northern Ireland were still watching the count at 2:30am. We say to them congratulations on your new found addiction. Next time see if you can keep up with us to past 4.30 am!

[Please note: beginner political anoraks should not attempt to track a Fermanagh and South Tyrone election count as this may be hazardous to any remaining vestiges of a sense of proportion]