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...

Power to the people!

IT seems that to some where you get your ‘leccy (to those not born in working class Belfast that translates as “one’s electrical supply”) from is a major piece of political theatre in the making.

While it is early days in the complex network that is the European supply grid, the story so far is that the Republic of Ireland’s ESB wants to buy a major league chunk of NIE.

After a few weeks digesting this, unionist politicians have been saying that this is a step too far and represents a strategic risk.

Which, of course, would be a risk if we were still in some sort of Cold War scenario with bombers and submarines off the Bangor coast.

But with a fair proportion of Northern Ireland’s private sector companies having interests across the globe, across the North Channel and across the border, unionists pitching a hissy fit smacks of playing to the proverbial gallery.

It is with a sense of an impending election that one views the debate over our ‘leccy. On the one hand, the nationalist politicians will grasp at anything with the slightest suggestion of an all-Ireland agenda. On the other hand unionists will happily open a factory without considering who the owner is, but will mutter darkly about RoI having a strategic say in utilities.

As for the average consumer of ‘leccy, there is only one question: “Can we have lower bills please?” After all in many parts of the world, where there is a semblance of a free market, there is competition in the energy supply sector. Here in Norn Iron until recently it was practically like a Marxist state: here’s what you’re getting and this is what you are paying. Maybe Times They Our a-Changin' with the arrival of Airtricity in the domestic 'leccy supply market...