Friday, 20 August 2010

NI 1 rest of UK nil

WE have a lot of smart young people in Northern Ireland. This week ‘A’ level results showed our students consistently outscored their counterparts in England and Wales.

Grades were higher and a shed load of young people recorded A* and A grades.

Encouragingly there was an upsurge in students taking the science, technology and maths subjects.

Disappointingly there are too few places for our students in our universities. Those battling through clearance to find a slot somewhere – anywhere – deserve our thoughts and sympathy. But most of all they deserve our admiration after two years of hard slog studying.

The cap on university places has meant that there are too few places for too many students.

Surely this is wrong-headed planning for the future.

Yes, there are some daft courses out there...and please we don’t need any more media studies graduates, but most courses teach critical thinking along with the skills of their chosen niche.

Such critical thinking may invite some to consider whether university funding is a devolved matter or not.

If Northern Ireland is to develop and build for the future, the Department of Employment and Learning must, surely, invest in our bright students.

They are the ones that can help economically; they learn the skills that can help those not fortunate enough to leave school with ‘A’ levels, or even GCSE’s.

Instead there is a paucity of places and an apparently shrinking budget in too many courses.

Critical thinking students may, at some point, ponder the fact that India produces more Maths PHDs in a year than the entire EU in five years.

The Asiatic and Sub-Asiatic countries realised years ago that the more graduates and post-graduates that can be supported, the more their country as a whole will benefit.

While China, Korea and India are now close to becoming the real power-houses of world creativity and achievement, we here, are seemingly denying students opportunities to study at home.

Instead we have slavishly followed the path of cuts to third level education and have allowed education to become embroiled in seemingly endless rows and bickering. At least some undergraduates may be able to write a thesis on how it got this bad.

The sound of the pipes...

A WISE sage once said that the sound of the bagpipe was one of three things. It could be the missing link between music and noise. Or, it could be a sound imitating a cat trapped in a cloth bag. Or it could be a joke that the Irish played on the Scots that they never got....

Whatever, Northern Ireland’s pipe bands were the most successful country in the recent World Pipe Band Championships.

Culture, Arts and Leisure Minister, Nelson McCausland, has been effusive in his congratulations, as befits his post and background.

But one wonders what other musical events Mr McCausland should celebrate that Northern Ireland excels in.

Perhaps as the leading proponents of the bodhran or penny whistle? Or the efficient beatings of the Lambeg drum?

One suspects that he will, not, however, be queuing up to celebrate some of the country’s most successful musical earners like Van Morrison, The Undertones, Stiff Little Fingers, Therapy?, or The Answer...unless they can add the pipes to their repertoire!

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Thank you Auntie!

IT’s good to know that the good old BBC cares. This week they have helpfully published the ‘Doomsday Timetable’. [BBC reporters didn’t actually say that, but we’re taking the editorial liberty of saying what they won’t]

At least ‘Doomsday Timetable’ would be what one could be led to believe if you heard reports of what is coming down the track in terms of the schedule to work out just how much money had to be saved from the national debt.

Helpfully Auntie Beeb outlined how over the summer axe on services would be considered by the Northern Ireland Executive, with this month departments all considering the option between ‘salami slicing’ of budgets and ‘sweeping cuts’.

It is becoming increasingly tiresome how the lives of workers and frontline services are being dealt with in euphemisms. A salami slice is still jobs and services gone, and sweeping cuts means a more demonstrable ending of careers and services.

Which all means that come September, we shall see MLAs fall over themselves to say that they ‘understand’ the financial pressures, before saying that they don’t want to see their local service ended, or the service they are being lobbied to save slashed.

The upshot is that there needs to be some leadership without the technocrat waffle; there needs to be honesty; and there needs to be at least one cadre of MLAs which will stand up and say that this hospital has to close, or this education programme must end. Tough decisions will need to made as the Executive sets its spending priorities for the next four years.

Yes, it is unlikely. Rather we suspect that there will be a few headline grabbing quangos or ‘white elephants’ cut - the relevant ministers taking a bow and quietly forgeting that this was what the Review of Public Administration was meant to do. There is such a thing as hitting an ‘Aunt Sally’.

If one reads enough Executive Information Service press releases, a pattern emerges. That pattern is of promises to save money being retreaded every so often.

And while such promises are regularly made they are rarely fulfilled. Education and Skills Authority to replace the education and library boards anyone? Or what about the reduction of the number of local councils?

We fear that rational cuts in Northern Ireland‘s budget have not been made soon enough and that Ministers will now be forced to slash services when the plans could have been made well in advance to make such cuts less painful.

In terms of where the cuts should fall, nothing should be left off the table - the taxpayer contribution to the civil service pension pot included.

Alas, Auntie will be on hand as the timetable of doom comes closer to its October 20th end. When the NI Executive Budget spending review goes out for consultation, it may already be too late for too many people.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Dissenter and talker

IT is a strange term ‘dissident’. Type it into the Microsoft Word dictionary and reference sources and words pop up like dissenter, rebel, protester, or unorthodox.

Words that don’t crop up include ‘low-life’, ‘scumbag’, ‘murderous’ or ‘dinosaur’.

Yet, such words have been bandied about when references are made to the so-called dissident republicans – along with ‘misguided’ and ‘enemies of Ireland’.

Now apparently, such dissidents are the subject of talks. So says the deputy First Minister. Martin claims that the government have taken the old BT ad tag line ‘It’s good to talk’ to heart and have opened lines of communication with dissident groups.

Of course, politicians north and south have been huffing and bluffing that such talks are not and indeed should not take place.

At this point armchair reviewers of Norn Iron’s chequered history should begin taking notes.

After all, when John Major was calling the Provos all the names of the day, meetings were underway with the ‘RA. And when any shade of politician was busy denying talks with loyalist terrorists, you could be sure that their comrades not in arms were talking to those with arms.

As Churchill [the prime minister] said: “jaw, jaw better than war, war” do such talks take place? As Churchill [the nodding dog of TV ad insurance fame] says: “Oh yes!”

But therein lies the rub. Talks must take place if there is to be an end to violence. But at the same time violence is being wrought upon men and women across Northern Ireland. One cannot but help notice that there may be a connection between a recent upsurge of dissident attacks and the possibility of talks. Are these sad, relics of the past trying to improve their bargaining hand?

If they are, to what end? Will they, like some fabled John Le Carré spy ‘Come in from the cold’? Or are they holding out for a decent deal and pay-off?

For all the comments on talk shows and waffle from ministers, it will all in the end come down to two factors: what price a human life and whether the so-called dissidents will ever look at the calendar and notice that this is the 21st Century and not some misty eyed poorly remembered distant past.

As one local songwriter said: “Ignorance kills Irishmen as surely as if we fired the gun.”