Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Happy Nollaig Shona Duit Christmas and a Merry Hannakah New Year to all

IN these culturally diverse times, when we gather around a Pagan altar to anoint the birth of the Messiah, Prophet, etc etc around the time of the Winter Solstice we want to wish all our faithful readers season’s greetings – but we’re sort of stuck in the correct manner to do so.

A few short years ago we were pretty clear – a simple Happy Christmas would suffice as the fumes of the office Christmas Party wafted over hapless storekeeps as we toiled to gather little Timmy’s two mandarins and chocolate coins for his Christmas stocking.

Now, do we offer the greeting in Irish? Do we offer the greeting in English? We’re not even sure what the Ulster-Scot version is, and we’re fearful lest we offend someone who is not a ‘Christian’.

Just look at the mess councillors and aldermen in Belfast City Hall got themselves into over one Irish language sign!

Eur not sore, are eu?

HERE on the outer fringes of a country on the western fringes of a European political organisation, drifting as part of an island and island group that floats on the European tectonic plate ever further from north America by a few centimetres each year, at least some politicians of note want a say in Europe.

Yes, former SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie wanted to know why David Cameron had added Norn Iron to the list of those he could ignore when exercising his Bulldog Spirit at the same time as throwing his veto amongst Johnny Foreigner.

Norn Iron comes next on his speed dial list after Nick Clegg, and I’m sure the speaker of the Assembly could have convened a 4am meeting of the MLAs quick enough to get a decision back to him by July 2012...

And wouldn’t you know it, the DUP were no slouches at rowing in with an opinion. Deputy Leader Nigel Dodds layed down a “David, We Love You” Commons motion, just in time to make Tory grandees think that they could dump those wishy washy Lib Dems in the run up to any general election and mate with the DUPs to ram through some damn tough legislation in case there is another hung parliament in 2015.

Of course, more sensible heads in Norn Iron would have been thinking straighter. As we gazed across the Foyle Peace Bridge, we wondered how many other grant schemes we could squeeze out of Strasburg before the Euro went the way of the Greek Potters Economic Wheel of Misfortune.

At least Agriculture Minister, Michelle O’Neill, got the prawn quotas sorted out in time for Margaret and Nigel to enjoy their prawn cocktails on Christmas Day! Just hope they didn’t get them from Iceland...

Monday, 19 December 2011

Tax ‘em til they squeak

AS the UK and Ireland moves closer to becoming Tesco’s largest outlet, Sammy Wilson, Miser for Finance and Personnel, has decided that the superstores should pay more than their share to help Norn Iron’s floundering economy.

Yeah, that’s right Sammy has launched a 15% rates hike on those nasty old investors to help some of the small artisans and petty bourgeoisie small shopkeepers.

Go, Sammy! All that effort and fraught meetings with lobby groups and industry representative groups and you stuck to your guns, well pretty much to your guns anyway.

Tescos are in a huff, Sainsbury’s in a sulk, B&Q are hiding in the corner playing menacingly with a power tool and Ikea are in a Swedish strop and threatening to run away.

And there is perhaps one good thing to come from this rates rise. While we may bemoan that bankers got off scot free (again), at least there is the whisper of a chance that we’ll never get lost around Ikea’s labyrinthine flat pack maze.

‘Tis the season to be jolly

AH, the twinkling of the fairy lights reflected in the eyes of poor Timmy as we looks around the hospital ward, and the gaiety of the nurses as they swish almost soundlessly from bed to bed with good cheer, as doctors chortle with their young charges...

Well that would have been nice but that Edwin ‘Scrooge’ Poots, our Health Minister, is to close the ward and slam a big “For Sale to the Private Sector” around the hospital gates as they clang shut for the last time.

And he’ going to charge for prescriptions too! Merry Christmas to all!

But, wait, is that really Scrooge McPoots? Under that grey suit, does there lurk the vision and demeanour of a super hero, ready to leap into the fray, the saviour of our ailing and obese NHS in Norn Iron? Tough Poots on the outside, but Edwin’s warm and gushy to make sure Little Timmy has his leg amputated in time for Christmas so he can make slum employers feel guilty in time for next Yuletide?

Truth be told, no-one’s even sure how it will shake out as the Compton Review of health and social care takes sail over the potential closure of half the wards in hospitals, the reduction of A&E departments and the ‘Fat Tax’.

Now that was the genius move! Before any lobby group or community organisation could whip up a head of steam to turn any given MLA into a ‘Not In My Back Yard’ closure hospital NIMBY, the media moved in 24 hours from radio shows about hospital wards to the ethics of the ‘Fat Tax’.

Chubby people all claimed it was their right to munch merrily away, while slim folks pontificated and smokers heaved a last drag of delight that they weren’t the targets any more.

Thus Mr Poots can glance a steely eye around the chamber and the next time an MLA speaks about how his Hicksville hospital in the boonies has to stay open, he can measure the girth of the waistband of said MLA and consider uttering the immortal words: “So, now we know who ate all the pies!”

Monday, 12 December 2011

Hutton, independence and pensions

THEM canny old Conservatives thought they’d pulled a masterstroke when they appointed a Labour peer, Lord Hutton, to review public sector pensions.

Surely, given the dire state of the economy, the trade unions and the (taxpaying) public sector workers would go “all right, fair enough” when it came to slashing their pensions, making them pay more and work until they were senile enough not to know their homes were to be seized to pay for their nursing home bills. Even Jeremy Clarkson agreed it was a good deal.

Unfortunately the trade unions did not quite see it that way when you could have a good old fashioned strike, followed by some Christmas shopping.

Wrangles and stand-offs ensued, with, here in Norn Iron, a selection of MLAs dodging the question, not turning into their Parliament Buildings’ offices, and even crossing official union picket lines.

Then, what do we have happening? Well an independent panel reviewing MLAs not inconsiderable salaries and their pension schemes.

MLAs who crossed the picket lines must have known that they have what commentators have called gilt-edged pensions, certainly better ones than the public sector strikers can look forward to.

And, as the media asked various MLAs to comment on their pension review, some magnanimously agreed that they should take the pain too in reflecting the economic catastrophe in our midst. One such was Sammy ‘Ministerial Salary’ Wilson. As a former Chief Examiner of ‘A’ Level Economics, Mr Wilson will be aware that he’ll not feel as much pain from a pension cut as many others may do, and after all his final salary deal won’t be too shabby.

Others on lesser gilt-edged pension deal, did say that the review panel should cut back on their pension deals.

Others still took the view that Pontius Pilate was probably right and there was surely to be a basin to wash one’s hands of the matter, by saying that even if it was the Panel’s decision to leave it the same and award them a pay rise, well it was “out of their hands”.

Some commentators even managed to get MLAs to admit quietly that they would quite like a pay rise as their constitutional cousins in Wales and Scotland got more money than they did.

Err what! Thank you for that, but we should in the interests of fairness point out that the population of those semi-independent statlets is rather more than Norn Iron, and they have less people clogging up parliamentary corridors.

It seems that pension envy is alive and well as well as salary jealousy.

Of course, we the electorate have the power to oust these freeloaders, cutting short their pensionable entitlements. You know the way we do every few years or so; electing a new set of chancers each time. Oh wait a minute, we don’t seem to manage that trick!

Friday, 9 December 2011

Narnia and the Norn Iron Executive

ROLL-UP, roll-up for yer extra student places! Step forward young man, step forward young woman, because the largesse of the Norn Iron Executive knows no bounds.

Welcome one and all to the wonderful, weird world of Higher Education in Narnia, otherwise known as Stormont.

Just one step through the magic wardrobe at Parliament Buildings and you could get one of the extra 700 places being created in Norn Iron’s universities. The wonderful generosity of Employment and Learning Minister, Dr Stephen Farry means that not only are degree fees £5,500 cheaper than England, but there are even more places!

Excuse us if we swoon here with all this beneficence coming to our young people, it all is a little too much.

But, here comes the proverbial fly in the ointment (go on, you knew there had to be one!). It seems that at the same time that many parts of Belfast will henceforth be known as ‘Student City’ there may be no-one to fill the places.

“Surely not” you say! “Surely so”, we say. Because, Dr Farry’s Executive colleague, Education Minister John ‘High Tower’ O’Dowd is talking about drastic cuts in, not only the number of schools, but of each school’s budget...

So we may have loads of extra places in low-cost science, technology, engineering and medical degrees. But too few teachers and schools to make sure that the young ‘uns get the ‘A’ Levels necessary; that is unless the grammar sector gets some more...oh wait a minute! There be a political minefield ahead.

Monday, 5 December 2011

One and one equals WHAT!

WE are being told constantly that the resource we have amongst our educated workforce entices global companies to adopt the mantle as Foreign Direct Investors with a little Invest NI help and the possibility of Corporation Tax cuts at some stage in the future.

There is no doubt that we have a workforce available to start at the drop of a hat. In fact drop one near a dole office and you’ll have a ready made staff group clambering over each other to grab a pay cheque.

Whatever the rights and wrongs about the current education system, or your political perspective, a well-educated work force is pretty much needed. And to have a good well-educated work force you pretty much need schools.

So, what better way to prepare for the future than to cut back school budgets? Sure it all makes sense when you think about it. Or, maybe it doesn’t.

The reality, according to the Education Minister, John ‘Too Tall’ O’Dowd, is that Dick Dastardly (David Cameron) and Mutley (Nick Clegg) have teamed up with Skeletor (George Osborne) to impose cuts. That dratted British Administration has been blamed for each school having to cut five per cent off their budgets.

So, we have a bloated school estate, and no-one wants to see their local school close; we have at least five types of schools (well we can only remember five, but there are sure to be more); and there is a curriculum that doesn’t even seem prepared for 21st Century computing challenges.

A plan for the way forward? Audit the schools, cut budgets and well that seems about it.

According to most commentators (well those that manage to get on the media) we have a lot of high achievers and a lot who leave without qualifications. This seems to have existed for some time. And a plan to sort it all out? We’re sure that there is one, but in the meantime let’s cut schools’ budgets.

As we said it all sort of makes sense when you remember that we live in the Twilight Zone that is Norn Iron: do not adjust your sets you’re watching Stormont TV…

In other news more children are falling into the poverty trap. Sure at least they’ll be warm and fed in school, if it hasn’t been closed already!

Friday, 2 December 2011

In through the out door

SOMETIMES we are alleged to be a little bit cynical. Yes, I know that may shock you, but it is true: we have been taught to be suspicious of every move that every politician takes, every time they open their mouths.

Which is perhaps why it was with a little jaundiced jeer that we toasted George Osborne’s announcement that Norn Iron was to get a cool £200m extra to spend on whatever the Executive saw fit when the Chancellor made his autumn budget statement.

No matter whether Norn Iron has had its begging bowl held out to Tories or Labour, it is a good idea to see what strings are attached to the outreached 30 pieces of silver.

But, for a time we couldn’t quite see where the catch was. At the heart of every cynic is a romantic hoping for the best while fearing for the worst.

And lo, behold, the Secretary of State for Norn Iron, Owen Paterson has announced that a date is to be set to consider allowing Norn Iron to have a wee bit special corporation tax rate to entice those Yanks with stuffed wallets to empty their contents here.

Great, after all the waffle then maybe a decision!

And then we looked at the figures. Estimates are that reduced Corporation Tax in Norn Iron will cost us between £100m and £500m. Not even the most rash bookie would offer odds on the final figure as being £200m – exactly what Mr Osborne is handing out...

Of course, such a cynical suggestion could have one rated as being paranoid, but it all sorts of makes sense when you look at head on, rather than through the prism of news stories churned out.

We don’t blame the Tories in the same way it is unfair to blame Labour handling of Norn Iron’s weird economy.

Giving with one hand, while taking with the other is a perfectly reasonable approach when dealing with the Norn Iron political ‘elite’.

In the middle of the muddle will be, for another 18 months at least, Mr Sammy Wilson, Minister for Finance and Personnel. We all feel much reassured...

Monday, 28 November 2011

Who ate all the pies?

RIGHT own up now or the entire population gets detention! Who amongst you has been eating all the pies? C’mon, quicker that you own up, quicker that we can get on with decent ranting!

Well you pie eaters and salad dodgers, you’re going to cost us a fortune, and not just because of the hike in pastry prices across the land as a result of excessive demand.

Turns out all you burger munchers and chip addicts are going to cause a tsunami of obesity related illnesses that will result in huge demands on our already over-stretched waistlines, sorry health budget.

Which, given the parlous state of Norn Iron finances means real trouble. The bill will become ever more exacting in human lives, not to mention the costs of treating diabetes, strokes, heart attacks and respiratory illnesses, something our politicians are all too well aware of.

But what can any self-respecting, if slightly tubby MLA do about it apart from adopt a healthy lifestyle as an example to all?

We have been known to indulge a little like the rest, but we also know the success of public health campaigns on smoking, drink driving and the like. Yet, we spend so little on the public health budget in Norn Iron that an Ulster Fry, with all the trimmings (that means double bacon, double sausages and double fried eggs) seems at times like a national cuisine d’art.

The alternative is for the Health Minister to begin a serious re-evaluation of spending on public health as part of the ongoing review of health.

Or could all of you who have been eating all the pies own up and leave lest you tip the island into the Atlantic!

Friday, 25 November 2011

Fracking fracker of a frackin’ row

WE do confess to being not at the top of the intellectual discipline that is geology. We do know what a rock looks like, and being resident in Belfast some of the time we know what the best weight of a rock is to heft during a riot.

However, when it comes to the practice of extracting deep buried sources of fuel from within (DUP Young Earth Creationists look away now) the boundaries of rock laid down millions of years ago, we’re not quite sure.

Norn Iron seems to, for all intents and purposes, to be bereft of natural fossil fuel sources. Had we oil or vast reserves of coal we’d have American ‘peace’ keeping forces here in 1969.

As it is, apart from strong winds from MLAs mouths, wind power is our only abundant natural energy resource.

But it recently turned out that we may have some ‘shale’ gas in Fermanagh: which comes with a slight catch. Shale gas is difficult to get out of the ground, even if some dissident republicans might suggest that they have some explosives that can do the job, scientists did explain that mixing gas and explosives is not a naturally good thing.

To get this gas out of the ground they use hydraulic forces to, erm well to hydraulically force the gas out. This technique is a wee bit controversial, even if it seems that we are to be reassured that some nice Australians are to be given the licence.

After all their ancestors were probably shipped to Oz as a punishment for some minor offence, so it might seem right and proper that they come back looking not to extract overdue revenge, but to extract our gas.

All well and good so far?

Well controversy between environmentalists and business men aside, this issue is not normally the subject of political satire.

But then pops up the Green Party saying that Energy Minister Arlene Foster’s hubby owns some of the land to be ‘exploited,’ or developed if you prefer.

Surely, claimed Mr Steven Agnew, it was a faux pas not to mention this when the Minister was answering questions on the licence to ‘frack’?

Not a bit of it, saieth the First Minister, Peter Robinson!

Who may be right as to whether profiting from property was a cause for investigation? Is it Mr Robinson? Is it Mr Agnew?

Or will this whole fracking mess just go away without the Speaker having to make a ruling.

Now as mentioned in the start we’re no experts in geology, but we do know how to use Wikipedia, the same as the next ignoramus. And we did come across an article suggesting that fracking may, or may not, have been the cause of a minor earthquake in Blackpool.

If fracking was to cause a political earthquake rather than a geological one in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, even Mr Agnew might welcome it.

Friday, 18 November 2011

PfG2 - The Delivery Begins!

DEEP in the bowels of Parliament Buildings, Stormont lies a darkened room.

Occasionally a door opens letting in light, causing the denizens of this secret cabal to blink and shrink from the glare.

The rare times it does open is to admit a pizza delivery, or multi-packs of stimulant drinks.

Here lies the geek.

Here lies the programmers; that secretive bunch of nerds who crouch and stoop as they bend over their keyboards, using their programming skills to shape and adjust the figures and avatars flitting across their screens.

Here they are ready for their latest release, with a fanfare almost as big as any Xbox 360 release, dripping with the same hyperbole PlayStation3 games the nerds let loose their latest product “Programme for Government 2.0 – the delivery Begins!”

Players of PfG2 are immediately faced with the first challenge, controlling rival speakers as they bore endlessly without tripping up, or worse still, disagreeing.
Next navigate a host of media interviewers were reporters shoot barbed jibes and awkward questions.

Finally beware the end of level boss: earn experience points from ‘Da Speaker’ before facing the End of Level Boss – The Allister.

Pass by The Allister and you’ll move on to Level Two, where you must extract the secret elixir called ‘Money’ to deliver your Level One Promises into the strangest yet of environments. It’s called the real world. As yet few MLAs have passed that level consistently for more than a few fleeting moments.

The programmers of Pfg2 – The Delivery Begins promise four years of gameplay before the ultimate stage ‘The Election’. Before then thrill with your ‘Sword of Cuts’ as you slash into the bloated dragons of Local Government, reducing their numbers until you can manage them; and discover the secret hoards of gold hidden in the mysterious caverns called ‘Monitoring Rounds’.

Less advanced PfG2 players still have the option of downloading a player guide in hard copy where you can join in by picking a page and rolling a dice to see whether any Programme for Government promises can be met.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Collision course

THE prospect of closing schools seems a nice wee idea for saving money, although no-one has yet explained how this will be achieved as there is unlikely to be a queue to buy old school buildings, but at least they’ll save on the costs of those pesky teacher’s wages.

So, while we’re all welting away thinking about what the Education Minister, John ‘High Tower’ O’Dowd’s audit of schools will result in, some schools in the South Eastern Education and Library Board area are already ‘earmarked’ for closure.

One such school is Knockmore Primary School in Lisburn, an integrated school with a special needs unit. Who should pop up there on Friday, but Health Minister Edwin Poots. And the Department of Health’s press release duly issued a press release with much made of the speech and language work done there.

But surely it could be construed as inappropriate for an Executive Minister to visit a school while its future is being decided. If he was visiting as the constituency MLA then fair enough, but then the gathered press officers would not have needed to pull together a few well honed phrases and issue the release via the Executive Information Service.

Has a nod been tipped to ‘Big John’ or will this see mutual huffing?

Nothing like a crisis to get us all motivated

NORTHERN Ireland’s politicians have adopted the motto of the Boy Scout movement to “Be Prepared” by planning for a crisis over the next Justice Minister six months in advance.

For those of you too bored to pay attention, Alliance took on the mantle of the devolved Justice portfolio in April 2010 after much faux brinkmanship between the DUP and Sinn Féin. But that deal will end in May 2012.

Who will then become Justice Minister? Sinn Féin quite fancy a shot at it, but the DUP will not look forward to facing their core electorate with that in place, so are suggesting that the number of executive departments be reduced so the posts can be doled out to prevent such embarrassment. Either way we could be see D’Hondt run again (Oh, go and look that up on Wikipedia because we’re not going to explain it again!).

Alliance leader and current Justice Minister, David Ford said he would willingly step aside to make sure that the devolution of justice would not fall.

And, an agreed way forward? We can’t be having that! Otherwise there would be no sense of crisis to work towards in May. After all we’ve no election to get worked up about!

Friday, 28 October 2011

On yer bike!

HEALTH staff! Out, get out right now! Yep, Health Minister Edwin Poots wants you gone! And especially if you're what he calls non-essential staff...

Mr Poots claimed this week that he had secured £15m to offer voluntary redundancies and early retirement packages to health staff and wasn’t able to rule out that ‘frontline’ staff would not be included. So, does that mean that if a member of the ‘frontline’ turns up asking for early retirement,Mr Poots will say no until there are enough non-essential staff collecting their cheques? And, who exactly qualifies as non-essential? And, how soon will they be back as management consultants?

Past efforts have been less than successful, or have seen swathes of the health service, like cleaning services, contracted out to the private sector. And who are we to say that it was a mere coincidence that Mr Poots was recently in the US of A, where people who don’t have health insurance yearn for the luxury of the NHS, even our less than perfect version of it.

Right here, right now more operations are being carried out, ever more complicated procedures are undertaken regularly, cancer sufferers have better survival rates and people are living longer than any other period of history.
This means that the ministerial portfolio attached to health is one which will forever be a victim of the success of those under their titular command.

Therefore spending £15m to get rid of some staff to save £9m a year seems a good deal. But, we suspect – regular Clouseau’s that we are – that all will not run smoothly, and the law of the health service unintended consequences will kick in almost immediately.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Fox, Tories and the UUP

WE hate the term lobbyists. It conjures up images of sharp suited types smarming round the corridors of the Congress and the Senate in the US to make sure more kids are addicted to tobacco and oil companies are allowed to kill wildlife.

Here in Northern Ireland there are few lobbyists. These include professional, dedicated consultants who work in an open transparent way with their clients and politicians. As opposed to say the way a certain Mr Werrity is alleged to have operated…

Mr Fox stood up in the Commons and, like a naughty school boy on front of the headmaster said he done wrong, but if it wasn’t for them touts in the media…

Now, much as we have the occasional dislike for the media and their scurrilous ways, it is a bit rich to say the media were misbehaving because I was misbehaving and that wasn’t fair; if you catch what we mean.

Instead of the mutual respect public affairs professionals here in Northern Ireland share with politicians, policy officers and their aides, the Fox affair has the potential to cause the sort of chaos that occurs when…well when a fox gets into the henhouse. (You can now park all your ‘long runs the Fox’ comments, we’ve heard them all)

While this year’s Tory party conference was marked by there being more “lobbyists” than Conservative Party delegates, here in Norn Iron party conferences are generally more sedate and, well more gentlemanly type of affairs. A long weekend, getting to know candidates and colleagues, influencers and decision-makers alongside the politicos and their acolytes.

And lo and behold this weekend the Ulster Unionist Party conference is to be a much truncated affair, a private session for party members to work out where it all went wrong this afternoon (Friday) and a brief opportunity for those lobbyist types to mingle tomorrow morning (Saturday), before the main session concludes at lunchtime.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Oh do behave!

THE ability for Norn Iron’s politicians to behave as clowns for the entertainment of the chittering and chattering classes has no bounds.

Whoever is in the Assembly speaker’s chair has to contend with TUV leader Jim Allister for a start – the politician with more red cards than Wayne Rooney. They also have to contend with people shouting, people making statements while sitting (a definite parliamentary no-no), people making statements instead of asking questions and at least one other language.

Deputy speaker Roy Beggs showed a red card to Dominic Bradley last week, who was asking a question/making a statement/ordering lunch in Irish but refusing to translate his words into English. While some other Gaeilge speakers in the chamber could understand Mr Bradley’s point, frankly we couldn’t really be bothered, when the comedy value of another MLA getting a red card was out there.

Of course, there was no real sanction. Not being able to speak in plenary sessions is a skill many an MLA has acquired and judging by the empty benches during debates, attending challenges more than a few.

So what would be a real sanction for an MLA? A cut in wages for a week or month or a fine should be one option. Repeat offenders could be made to apologise publicly to their party Assembly grouping, or better still their constituents?

But all of this belies the fact that most MLAs manage to work hard, both in committees and on behalf of constituents.

While much has been done to profile the Assembly and educate the population on its structures we feel that the real problem is that MLAs never really explain their work or profile their jobs. We fear that no amount of money could hire Max Clifford or other PR publicists to tackle that Herculean job!

Friday, 14 October 2011

We're all doomed

IN case you hadn’t noticed, we’re all doomed…and it’s our fault. Yep we’re not spending enough to buy our way out of recession.

This remarkable analysis appeared in a number of articles following the publication of Norn Iron statistics that showed that our manufacturing figures slumped deeper than thought and were taking longer to recover.

Amidst much handwringing, beating of brows and rending of garments one of the proposed ways out of the tumultuous terror of double dips (make one of ours a guacamole dip please!) is to spend more and more.

Okay therein lies a basic problem: with unemployment rising and wages slumping it is hard to see how we’re going to avoid a dip in sales figures (of course we could all buy hummus dips…).

But hope lies on the horizon! Yes, our money Minister, Sammy Wilson has said there are more civil servants (yes especially those ones from North Down who buy the really expensive dips). Despite a so-called recruitment freeze there were more civil servants hired to stalk the corridors of the Stormont departments.

Other public bodies may not be hiring as many staff, but it is reassuring that there are more civil servants. Sales of biros and clipboards are sure to rise.

But what of the rest of the economy? Newspaper headlines scream meltdown; talk shows offer anyone with an opinion their slot on the airwaves and never have so many economists offered so few options to so many media outlets.

Who is offering solutions? No-one apparently has any realistic answers. The much-mooted corporation tax cut for Norn Iron has disappeared off the immediate horizon.

Which is all a lot of words to say that while economies crumble, nation states waver, financiers and bankers sweat and governments quail there is no immediately viable solution to the problems that beset a small part of a small island on the fringes of the European Union.

In the meantime we’re off to get some of that really expensive ‘caviar’ dip, taramosalata, wash it down with some top notch retsina… or a meal deal and a bottle of buckfast…

Monday, 10 October 2011

Thus the golden generation departs off stage

THE golden generation of Ireland has sloped from the stage, heads bowed, acknowledging that for them the dream is over, the faint hopes that once were so stirring and exciting gone forever.

Instead ahead lies oblivion and taunts; old injuries bedding in as arthritic joints loom in the not too distant future.

Oh, and the Irish rugby team lost too.

Yes, where once a succession of Marys held the promise of a Celtic Tiger surging forward, bolstered by energy and reckless daring, we now have symbols of an Ireland confused by its identity. Asda shoppers, a disability claimant, a quangocrat, a Eurovison ‘winner’ and pensioners are numbered in the Irish presidential race.

Is this really the best that can represent Ireland? Will Asda be doing deliveries to the presidential palace? Would Mr Norris still be able to claim his disability payments and by now does anyone care?

The Irish presidential campaign promised much in the way of early excitement, with McGuinness and Norris bringing controversy and colour, but so far like the flaccid Irish forward line and the insipid tackling of the Irish rugby team it has faltered into something only the media really, truly care about.

One might almost be tempted to suggest that there is no hope for statesmanship in the wake of race, but this we are sure: it makes Norn Iron tribal politics seem at least a wee bit daring in comparison.

Monday, 3 October 2011

And He’s Been Shown the Red Card!

WITH all the tension of waiting for some referee in the premiership to decide whether it really was a two-footed challenge, Speaker of the Assembly William Hay gave TUV leader and anti-power sharing cheer leader Jim Allister a yellow card warning before, as the crowd bayed, showed the North Antrim Assembly man the red card…

Defiantly striding from the chamber, publicity mission accomplished, Mr Allister readied to serve out his extension.

Yes the suspension will restrain Mr Allister from being called to speak however we are worried about the sanity of officials in government departments.

The suspension will give Mr Allister more time to scribble some more written questions, of which he is quickly proving to be the master, with more than 200 in his name slapped down to answer since his election in May.

This could be the work of a man determined to assess whether the laws of pedantry have stepped into the realm of legislative and constitutional juxtaposition, or he is aiming for an Asian job creation scheme whereby answering his questions can be out-sourced to a call centre on the sub-continent.

We, of course, believe that all MLAs only ever ask questions for two reasons: to establish facts; and, to ensure transparent democracy. No MLA would ever ask a question to score political points.

Marching to the 'Field'

R&B ARTIST and possessor of fine assets Rhianna caused Norn Iron to hit global headlines after DUP councillor Alderman Alan Graham told her to cover up those assets and leave the field.

Some of you may suspect that Rhianna got confused about the date when a proportion of Norn Iron’s population march to the ‘field’. Others will suspect a masterstroke of PR by the Tourist Board, yet others have claimed it shows we’re just as backward as a Bible-belt, end of times evangelical from the southern states of the US.

Whatever way you want to look at it (and there were plenty trying to look at it across the aforementioned field) Rhianna’s bare-chested cheek at exposing herself put Norn Iron on to global news pages instead of our traditional summer ‘glories’ (winning golf majors and recreational rioting).

Condemnation and congratulations are a successful Norn Iron participatory sports, reserved for athletes lithe enough to dial a radio phone-in. Rhianna’s welcome into Norn Iron’s bosom (Editor’s Note: Stop those chest references right away!) meant that we exported our call-in condemnation/congratulation merry-go-round across the world.

Rumours that a major Hollywood porn studio is trying to book up fields here to get some shock PR were proved false when it was revealed [Editor’s 2nd Note – now really stop that!] that Norn Iron’s climate is normally dank, damp and mildly miserable.

What it did prove to the world is that Norn Iron can now collectively turn its hand to video, TV and film production for top studios, producers and directors from across the world.

But we wonder, was this an unexpected side consequence of Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness talking up our production facilities in the US. If it was we hope that the pair have not made tits of themselves. And now we really must draw a modest curtain across this story…

Friday, 30 September 2011

And He’s Been Shown the Red Card!

WITH all the tension of waiting for some referee in the premiership to decide whether it really was a two-footed challenge, Speaker of the Assembly William Hay gave TUV leader and anti-power sharing cheer leader Jim Allister a yellow card warning before, as the crowd bayed, showed the North Antrim Assembly man the red card…

Defiantly striding from the chamber, publicity mission accomplished, Mr Allister readied to serve out his extension.

Yes the suspension will restrain Mr Allister from being called to speak however we are worried about the sanity of officials in government departments.

The suspension will give Mr Allister more time to scribble some more written questions, of which he is quickly proving to be the master, with more than 200 in his name slapped down to answer since his election in May.

This could be the work of a man determined to assess whether the laws of pedantry have stepped into the realm of legislative and constitutional juxtaposition, or he is aiming for an Asian job creation scheme whereby answering his questions can be out-sourced to a call centre on the sub-continent.

We, of course, believe that all MLAs only ever ask questions for two reasons: to establish facts; and, to ensure transparent democracy. No MLA would ever ask a question to score political points.

The Education Elephant in the Room

APPARENTLY we’re crap. Yes, crap. Rubbish, useless and downright awful. That’s according to Professor Sir Robert Salisbury.

Sir Bob is the man charged with the numeracy and literacy review in Norn Iron. He has not as yet pointed out that most MLAs can neither spell numeracy or literacy let alone pronounce them, but we live in hope that this fact makes it into his final report.

The knighted prof slammed what he claimed was the “enduring myth” that we in Norn Iron are good, like, in edukashion, or, like, in doing sums, like. Amptinat (“Am I not” for those unfamiliar the local patois) telling ye lot all the time we’re a wee bit shabby when speekin the proper words!

No sooner had Sir Bob popped up on BBC to reveal to shocked Daily Mail readers across the land that in the top 30 rankings for reading we came in at 19th – well behind the English. Shocked radio announcers declaimed this fact in almost perfect grammar as producers sweated over whether Mr Green Ink of North Down would spot that incorrect participle or sloppy verb agreement in the previous bulletin…

And, when it comes to counting we ranked only 27 out of 30. Are these figures reliable? Well, we hope so as they were prepared by someone educated in a country ranked higher than 27th!

Of course, there followed an announcement in the Assembly that this education lark would be a doddle once we’ve audited, trimmed the fat, and generally knuckled down; followed by a perfunctory debate and name-calling.

Take a wee step back and look at our track record on dealing with education. We have eleven different systems: controlled; catholic maintained; voluntary; Irish medium; and integrated [see what we did there with a maths related joke…oh you didn’t? Well that’s perhaps why we’re ranked so low!]

And these systems are governed by eight education boards: Northern, South Eastern, Southern, Belfast and Western [What, you still don’t get the joke! We give up!]

And then we have the various ‘colours’ of the NI Executive, an examining board and the Department of Education, plus a whole load of smaller Arm’s Length Bodies we can’t remember. Your homework will be to link the phrase “over-governed” and “irony” through an exposition of whether this is comic irony, tragic irony, historic irony, situational irony, Socratic irony or taking the mick. We’re sure there’s a Google search result or Wikipedia page you can copy and paste from to help in your three or four word answer.

We have had four Assembly elections (1998, 2003, 2007 and 2011) to gather a group of politicians in the Big House. We’ve had more false starts than can be easily enumerated, more huffs than Carlos Tevez, and more talking than the chattering of the chattering classes. And we still end up with a rifted education system and dogma aplenty.

There are the ideological differences, there are the political differences and there are the differences for the sake of being different. What we can say for certain is that we have some children who do very, very, very well in GCSE’s and ‘A’ levels. And, we have way, way, way too many who leave school barely able to read the horse racing pages or count up their betting slips costs.

This tells us something. First, there is a thing called ‘functional literacy’ which means in short hand terms, the ability to function in society other than read the sports pages or do the maths showing why there are very few poor bookies.

So, this is a very simple challenge to the Norn Iron Executive – look in the dictionary for the word ‘agree’. You may be surprised by what you find. If you are struggling with translating this word into action head straight back to your dictionary and check what it defines under the word ‘compromise’.

[NB – there are at least, technically, five hidden grammatical errors in the preceding article. If, and when, you find them you have reached the stage of English-language Jedi Initiate, we wish you well on your journey to enlightenment, but we still want to check your passport to make sure you really are from Norn Iron!]

Monday, 26 September 2011

Who silenced the media?

THE arrival of Martin McGuinness into the race for Irish president precipitated an avalanche of media comment about what role he did or did not do in the Provisional IRA.

Since he has shorn himself from the Aran sweaters he favoured in bygone days and now bears the work wear of a senior politician (sensible suit and shoes) he can at least be glad that he is no longer being pursued by the fashion police. It also means that a part-time job as an Art Garfunkel tribute act is now beyond him – look at the pictures from the 80s and you’ll get that reference!

Any complaints from unionist politicians – and the more unstable callers to radio shows - about his past are moot points north of the border. Given they are more than happy to work alongside him in his role as deputy First Minister, it would be churlish to complain about him throwing his hat into the ring for President of what one unionist commentator called a “foreign state”.

But the role of the media in the presidential race has come under close scrutiny. One of the constant, recurring themes on the ‘tinterweb has been that the ‘southern media’ will be much tougher on Mr McGuinness, and will look closely at his PIRA past…
Which begs the question as to what the ‘northern media’ has been doing for the past decade or so? Even journos and hacks have trotted out the line that the ‘southern media’ will be looking closely at his past.

Whether doing that is right or wrong will be subject of many an online rant. However, we are worried, nay very worried, about what that implies for Norn Iron’s press corps, specialist correspondents and generally every reporter in the six counties.

Are they timid? Are they easily bored? Do their editors not give them enough expenses? Have they ever even hacked a phone?!

Or – enter the conspiracy theory – have they been silenced? Have they taken an editorial ‘go softly’ line with certain MLAs? Does this mean they have taken an active stance on the peace process and not stood by and reported?

We’re not concerned at the whys and wherefores, we’re concerned at the implication that the south of Ireland journalists are better than our journalists in the north. C’mon people, the Republic of Ireland may be higher that Norn Iron in the football rankings but surely not in the journalism league tables!

Friday, 23 September 2011

Unclean, unclean!

IT seems that we are determined here in Norn Iron to emulate the southern states of the US’s Bible Belt. At least that would seem to be the case as Health Minister Edwin Poots declared this week that the lifetime ban on homosexual men donating blood would continue.

Mr Poots may or may not be right in stating this was a rational course but, as they say in marketing, it is all about perception.

First off, one would not like to see this laid open to a judicial review – lawyers get enough money as it is. Second, what will this do to Norn Iron as tourist destination for the ‘pink pound’ of gay travellers?

Then there is the issue of need. As one commentator pointed out, we may need to erect a blood wall to prevent the blood of gay men in the rest of the UK being imported for life-saving operations…

Now, as Mr Poots rightly points out there are some states of the USA and parts of Europe that have persisted in retaining a lifetime ban on homosexual donors, but there are a few problems in this. What are the risks of someone telling a lie when giving blood? What about bi-sexuals? What about those who had one ‘encounter’ and then led a life of celibacy – oops that’s another story.

We wonder how long he can maintain this stance – we’ve moved from the enlightenment of scientific practice and evidence that screens all donations for diseases, to one of blanket bans…tricky times at the blood bank. We just hope we don’t have to make any withdrawals from said bank if shortages ensue…

Monday, 19 September 2011

The Doubles Game

THERE was once upon a time, a long time ago in a galaxy called election campaigns when the topic of double jobbing was much in the spotlight. Back then a euphemism was devised. It was: “dual mandate”.

Such was this euphemism, that it sort of explained everything and nothing all at the one time, because MLAs were representing the same people twice, but they were elected – presumably – by the same people, hence the ‘dual tag’. We still prefer double jobbing as you wouldn’t want your window cleaner trying to wash your upstairs windows and downstairs windows at the same time [You may wish to think about this metaphor for a wee while...]

Such was the ire of the people on double jobbing that it gave way quickly to boredom after a few politicians [sacrificial lambs?] did pick up their electoral beds and walk to one house only.

But yeah through the valley of media ennui walked 18 MLAs, who still are double jobbing.

We’ll spare them the embarrassment of naming them – also known as us being too lazy to type them all out – but hope that they will hang their heads in shame. Yeah we like a joke.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life – which once upon a time was known as the Committee on Expenses We Can Get Away With – has said Parliament should introduce legislation to ban such electoral double jobbing. If it did so our own Stormont Commissioner for Complaints could tut loudly until MLAs resigned a seat or two.

Until such legislation is introduced the Stormont Commissioner for Complaints can tut all he wants and the MLAs drawing down truck loads of cash (and if it’s not for themselves, think of all the expenses and office staff they can gain!) can continue on their merry gravy train.

But if we were members of the parties with members double jobbing we’d be a wee bit worried: because so long as they’re doubling up on electoral duties, what opportunities are there for new candidates to be blooded on the election trail, or at occupying a comfy seat in Parliament Buildings.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Three-way Battle to be Leader

WELCOME ladies and gentlemen to this month’s racing calendar, with the featured race, the race to be leader of the SDLP.

The runners and riders will be shortly under starters orders in this three-horse long distance challenge.

First to the post is Patsy McGlone who is expected to make the early running in this National Hunt meeting. The Mid-Ulster MLA emerged as the favourite after his early intention to run.

Next up is the outsider, fleet of tongue and fast on his feet is Conall McDevitt. A younger runner in some people’s eyes, the South Belfast man has been around the party for a wee while now, but can he manage it over some of the higher fences.

Bringing up the rear is Alasdair McDonnell, another from the South Belfast stables. With two constituency branches putting up hurdles by declaring for McGlone, the race veteran will have a challenge to his staying power.

It’s set to be a long race ladies and gentlemen, starting at the SDLP HQ on the Ormeau Road, with a long chase up to the finishing line on Shaw’s Bridge (Ramada Hotel) in November.

Despite the long race, we’re fully expecting the race to end in a photo-finish as the contenders slow before the finishing post and ask themselves: “Do I really want this job?”

Critical Condition

There follows the transcript of a real call to the emergency services.

Operator: Which service do you require?

Caller: Ermmm, Ambulance I suppose.

Operator: Before you go on, you do know that we take prank calls very seriously?

Caller: Of course I do! This isn’t a prank!

Operator: And we don’t waste time with trivial calls!

Caller [Becoming increasingly irate!]: This is no trivial call! The patient is in a critical condition!

Operator: You see one in five calls are about stupid stuff like heart attacks or brain trauma. Have you people never heard of taxis?

Caller [Exasperated]: No, the patient really needs help!

Operator: You know one in five calls are a waste of highly trained managerial and public relations time.

Caller [Angry now]: You’re not listening! The patient needs help right now!

Operator: Are you really, really, really sure?

Caller [Yelling]: Yes, really, really, really, bloody sure!

Operator: No need to shout! I believe you now. So, what is the nature of the patient’s problem?

Caller: Haemorrhaging badly.

Operator: Badly?

Caller: Really, really badly, and sounding incoherent.

Operator: I see, well, what’s the nature of the injury?

Caller: It’s horrible! It’s flowing out of everywhere.

Operator: Everywhere?

Caller [Sobbing now]: First it was the promises, now the cash is haemorrhaging all over the place, please, please send help!

Operator: That is horrible!

Caller: First it was the cancer centre up there beyond passport controls in stroke city [Derry/Londonderry), then it was the other promises on everything, everything I tell you!

Operator: Oh, I see. Where will we send the help to then?

Caller: Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, Dundonald House, Belfast.

Operator: Well we can’t do that

Caller: What!

Operator: Well don’t you know we’re shutting down some A&E departments and right now there are too many people at your nearest emergency department. Can I suggest you ring the new 111 number.. If you are still having problems make begging noises outside the Department of Finance. They’re giving all that money to students to subsidise their fees but there should still be few pounds left.

Friday, 9 September 2011

To university we go!

HOLD the front pages – the Norn Iron Executive has managed to make a decision. Yes, a real live, honest to goodness decision!

Student fees for our two ‘prestigious’ universities have been steadied at around £3,500, give or take a few quid.

The cost of this will be borne by to nabbing £40 million plus from somewhere else to hand out to the universities, with the exact details to be unveiled next week.

It also means that some of the political parties will be able to keep their election ‘promises’.

What we wonder – as do many others – is what sort of creative accounting are the Norn Iron Executive undertaking to bail out the universities, and at the same time put in place higher fees for non-Norn Iron students.

What superb accountants they must be to find funds for such extravagance, and can they come and look at our household budgets when they have a spare moment or so.

Of course, there are conspiracy theorists out there (we prefer to call them cynics when we are numbered among their ranks). They might suggest that there will be some sort of cull of other budgets, with accident and emergency departments and further education college campuses closing their doors.

On the other hand there might be a clear out of the more esoteric degrees from universities, such as the Slavic Music in the 13th century masters, or of the even less practical qualifications, such as degrees in journalism.

In the meantime we are predicting (not too confidently) a property boom in Norn Iron. If plans go ahead for higher fees for non-Norn Iron students then English students’ parents may think it better value to buy a cheap terraced house for Charles and Edwina to claim residency and avail of the reduced uni rates. We can recommend some discounted properties on the up-coming bijous markets on the Falls and Shankill Roads which they may wish to invest in…

An open letter to SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie

Dear Ms Ritchie,

We applaud your courageous decision to stand down as leader of the SDLP and as MLA for South Down. Thank you for your service to the party over the past two years. You will now have the time to remove the knives in your back.

You will no doubt also take the time to reflect on your tenure as leader as you enjoy the calmer waters of Westminster, particularly on the fact that under your stewardship, the party lost fewer Assembly seats than under previous incumbents.

We also hope that you pay particular attention to any representatives of the United States of America. Perhaps you may wish to give them a stout length of County Down oak in commemoration of the leaked comments about your allegedly ‘wooden’ media performances.

Yours etc

Monday, 5 September 2011

Spend, spend, spend...and lose

THE classic story of a football pools winner in the 20th century was someone who won millions and squandered the lot to end up back where they started. How much worse would it be to spend all that and end up in a poorer state?

Well the Ulster Unionist Party shelled out £96,000 in advance of May’s Assembly election and managed to lose seats. They were the biggest spenders; and one must question the tactics that cost them so much to achieve so little.

In contrast, the Alliance Party’s £29,000 spend produced eight seats – at an average cost of £3,625 a seat.

Even better value was the DUP’s £52,000 resulting in 38 seats, averaging out at about £2,120 a seat.

And even better value, Sinn Féin’s 29 seats cost an average around £1,750 a seat in the Assembly.

And when it comes to expenses, a tight rein may be exerted on all MLAs, but who will hold the reins come the next time the UUP plan an election campaign. One thinks that spending close on £100,000 may not be top of the party’s agenda.

Fianna Fails

FIANNA Fáil has failed, well not so much failed but rather decided not to fail in the Irish presidential election.

Leader Michael Martin announced on Wednesday last week that Fianna Fáil will not be nominating a candidate for the forthcoming presidential poll in the Republic. In a wonderfully worded statement, Mr Martin said that the party had undertaken research that indicated there “wouldn’t be any significant shift or change in terms of public opinion."

Translation: “We’d get a kicking in the ballot boxes!”

Perhaps some would say there is a lesson for certain parties in Northern Ireland, but even more pertinent could be FF dangling the carrot of a potential link-up with the SDLP.

Both parties are struggling to re-build after electoral slumps. With Sinn Féin in electoral ascendancy in the North, a formal link would demonstrate the SDLP's nationalist credentials and provide a distraction from FF’s woes.

And with the social media tweeting about a possible late Sinn Féin presidential candidate from North of Ireland, the pressure on both Fianna Fáil and the SDLP to show a commitment to a united island becomes all the more relevant.

The question is whether any of the potential SDLP leadership candidates float this idea ahead of the party conference...just to see if there is any mood for desperate measures.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Protect us from petitions

THERE is a rather extreme view that this ‘tinterweb’ thingymabob is a good thing. But given the recent British Government initiative on e-petitions, we are wondering whether those with access to the ‘tinterweb’ should have to pass a stupidity test before being allowed to connect to the world wide web.

The first e-petition out of the blocks is the death penalty. The ‘weight’ of opinion for this means Parliament will get to debate something that will never happen.

Well, of course we do have a contingent of ‘hang ‘em high’ Tory backbenchers...

Nevermind that the death penalty doesn’t reduce crime, or that the risk of miscarriages of justice has too high price...

However, it was nice that it gave Jeffrey Donaldson a chance to go on the air and repeat the DUP stance, which roughly equates to “death is too good for them”.

Can’t wait for that debate in the Assembly, let alone Westminster!

Moral panic fear outbreaks across the nation

THE United Kingdom is in the grip of fear, a fear induced by unprecedented moral panic.

Politicians, pundits, op-ed columnists and everyone who can dial into a radio show have been caught up in the rampant theft of clichés; charges are likely to be brought on those who have trotted out with armloads of unfounded opinions.

As a people we must fight back against this fever of fervent fundamentally flawed wafflers.

This post-modernist world we have plunged into is one where airtime is given to anyone, where we fear that everyone with an opinion is granted equal weight – everyone has a rear end too, but we don’t want to see those on the air either.

The fight back begins now.

We urge every broadcaster, every leader column writer and every numpty of an excuse for a politician to be silenced. Then perhaps we can make sense of this moral panic...

Yes, there have been riots and looting and criminality. Yes, it has shocked us all – well apart from those with a nice new shiny 42” plasma screen TV gratis.

So, what to do?

If the recalled MPs and the pundits hanging on their words were to think for a moment then, rather than polluting the airwaves in a competition to seem more outraged than the last punter, they might think that the obvious thing to do is ask a question.


And ask the question to the right people.

In the meantime we have the prospect of anyone covering their faces being potentially charged by gallant police men.

Yeah, we can see that working in Norn Iron – we have to cover our heads and pull hoods tight to survive the vagaries of the weather...

And, while the PSNI are capable of many things we can’t really see them having a wee chat with the rioters at Ardoyne shops next year urging them not to cover their wee fresh faces...

Friday, 5 August 2011

Can MLAs do sums?

ACCORDING to the BBC website the Assembly is shelling out more than £1m each year for security, maintenance and running costs for a property that it wants to sell for £2.5m after buying it in 2001 for £9m.

Ormiston House is a historic property that deserves to be noted, acknowledged and protected, but that is what the planning service does.

The Assembly is not exactly a cheap legislature, so rather than shell out £1m plus would it not be easier to set up an auction where the highest bidder gets the property. It may not be the best solution, but the loss on a piece of capital will be more than made up for by the savings in running costs.

Perhaps the accountants, auditors and actuaries may not be happy at shifting the various monies across the columns of their ‘books’, but then again common sense may break out. If something costs you £1m per year with no real benefits, get rid of it!

Fight Club!

WHAT happens in Fight Club stays in Fight Club is the infamous phrase from the eponymous Fight Club movie and political leaders from the beginning of time must have wished that they could impose such discipline! And prime amongst them right now is Margaret ‘Wooden’ Ritchie.

The ‘wooden’ title comes not from our pen, rather from the wikileaks intercepts of US state department emails. But, if that was all of Ms Ritchie and the SDLP’s woes, then summer would be a time to relax.

Instead there now follows massive uncertainty about the leadership. Patsy McGlone, deputy leader, has tossed his hat into the ring and became the first to break cover. Defeated leadership candidate Alasdair McDonnell is allegedly coming under pressure to enter the leadership race.

The below the line message is that Ms Ritchie’s leadership has seen the collapse of the SDLP vote and the loss of two Assembly seats. And this only goes to prove that pundits sense only the present and lack the perspective of even the recent past.

The reality is that the SDLP’s vote has been slowly sliding away, eroded by a variety of factors, not least by Sinn Féin’s solidity at the ballot box.

And the two seats lost should be seen in terms of losses and gains across the region.
But, please, please Ms Ritchie, Mr McGlone and Dr McDonnell can you keep this going solidly until the party conference? You’ll need extra space for the frustrated journos, bloggers, film crews, twitterers and political anoraks...oh and we’ll be there too.

However, for the SDLP the real problem is that, despite the melodrama of leadership challenges, there really is only the benefit of being a side show.

Whatever the root causes of the disconnect with the wider public - and worse still this internal wrangling – the four years until the next Assembly election may seem like a lot of time to resolve them, but time’s arrow only points in one direction and the seconds tick-by faster than you think. How many votes can be gained or lost in that time? And will any gains be enough for whatever leader the SDLP emerges with?

At least it wasn’t all hidden behind closed doors. And, in this day of smartphones and social media, we’re glad that that the code of fight club can no longer be held to by MLAs.

Friday, 22 July 2011

A word for the idiots

THIS week saw another piece of idiocy on the streets of Belfast. Taking the place of the idiotic rioters was the discovery of a viable mortar in a residential part of north Belfast.

We cannot, nor can any other sane person, think what sort of political statement can be achieved through such actions; and those responsible cannot possibly think that they can bring about a united Ireland, socialist utopia through such actions.

In the – vain – hope that one of the idiots responsible reads this, we have a word of advice for them: take a holiday.

Go, sun yourselves, get a few cheap beers down yer neck and forget about killing people for some long forgotten cause.

Or, better still, head off to the horn of Africa and carry out some aid work – then if a Somalian fighter kills your sorry rear end, you’ll have done some good before leaving the rest of us in peace.

Thar she blows that great white myth – a decision!

IT looks like there is a distinct possibility that the rarest of beasts has been spotted in Norn Iron – a real, honest to goodness political decision.

For years, the Captain Ahab’s of the chattering classes and the commentariat have been ploughing through the waters of Hansard and the waves of newsprint in search of a decision.

Finally with Moby Dick like suddenness a decision has crested at the most unlikely of times...

Health Minister Edwin Poots has revealed that one of Belfast’s many accident and emergency departments is to close its doors, and the likely candidate is the Belfast City Hospital’s A&E department.

Belfast currently has more hospitals than you can shake a bandage at, with the Royal, the City and the Mater, not to mention the nearby Ulster Hospital.

In days of yore such a luxury was feasible for a number of reasons. In medical terms the care of emergency patients was not as advanced as it is now, where teams of highly trained nurses, anaesthetists, radiographers and doctors need to be on hand.

Then there was of course the political decision to open the Belfast City Hospital to please some people, not least unionists who claimed that the mile or so to the Royal in west Belfast was to venture into uncharted territories. The Mater was seen as a ‘Roman Catholic’ hospital by some, but that never stopped the injured from the Shankill visiting there when needs arose.

Finally there was the situation of political ennui – there has seemed, for the past decade or so, a political boredom with the idea of health as something that was difficult to make a decision on.

This week Edwin Poots was before the health committee at Stormont – a committee called back from recess, unusually, to discuss real politics rather than spouting off in general.

Minister Poots admitted that there was work needing done, and with staff shortages, and a lack of junior doctors such work involved closing something.

His predecessor, Michael McGimpsey had warned that health was under-funded, but a lack of executive willingness to back a UUP minister made sure it was held in abeyance.

Of course, hot on the heels of Minister Poots’ announcement came the ritual of south Belfast politicians whining on about how they would fight to keep the City Hospital A&E Department and denouncing the decision.

Just like the campaigners for about a dozen small hospitals across the region, they are large on rhetoric and short on solutions. And how many people noticed those closures a year or two down the line? And how many remember that those hospitals once provided A&E services.

What Minister Poots needs to do now is to make the closure fact in order to trim the fat away from other hospitals, the Mater being surely next in the firing line, and to invest any savings into making the Royal Hospital’s A&E departments (for there is also the regional children’s A&E unit on the same site) truly world beaters where patient’s care is the best that it can be.

After that he just has his own constituents' complaints about shorter A&E hours at Lagan Valley Hospital to worry about!

FOOTNOTE: Yes, you could argue that Minister Poots’ announcements that Altnagelvin Radiotherapy unit would go ahead was a decision, but for the sake of an extended metaphor we prefer to see it as keeping an election promise that the First and Deputy First Minister made...

Friday, 24 June 2011

We’re (NOT) leaving on a jet plane

“SOMETIMES you couldn’t make it up”. Or so goes the old cliché. And certainly it would be a stretch to find a passage of fiction to match the alleged facts behind the Air Passenger Duty (APD) debacle.

It has been claimed that the Norn Iron Executive didn’t respond to the consultation over APD. Meanwhile Finance Minister Sammy Wilson did submit a response.

Now, for those who think that APD only really matters when you find out you’re budget airline fare isn’t as budget as you think, then please think again.

First, let’s rewind ourselves back to all the comments around the budget at the end of last year. We were told, to paraphrase an American President, “It’s the economy stupid.”

And one of the things that we have always been led to believe is that an air bridge – that is an air route – helps enormously in getting American investment into Norn Iron’s wee economy.

So, when our near neighbours in Dublin charge only a few Euro in tax for a transatlantic flight, here the only transatlantic flight has tax of £120 for a return flight.

Now, hold up your hands in despair! Our economy must be on the verge of collapse if Continental Airlines ends its Belfast to Newark route.

Well, no it won’t.

Dublin Airport is less than two hours drive from Belfast.

Try flying into a major hub airport in the US and getting to a city centre within two hours. Ain’t gonna happen.

So why all the fuss.

The Scottish Highlands and Islands has a sort of exemption. Well, we’re not exactly sure, but if any politician seriously thinks that equating NI plc with Tartan world lite is going to help Norn Iron then they might want to think again.

And, given the head of steam that’s building up around the corporation tax debate, local politicians may start clamouring for powers to set APD in Norn Iron.

Less tax raised in the region means a smaller hand out from Treasury each year. Can we afford tax varying powers, and if we can afford them, can we trust yer average MLA to do real economic maths without taking their socks off.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Paisley and the DUP – row ensues

WITH friends like these who needs enemies? When the DUP fall-out that fall-out is usually behind closed doors. The result sees someone walking off in a huff or simply swallowing their pride and keeping calm and carrying on.

But there has been a very public spat within the party. First off, Ian Paisley Jnr said the standard of debate in the Northern Ireland Assembly wasn’t very good. Next Peter Robinson said that oh yes it was! Pantomime season isn’t upon us, but this was beginning to seem like a right old pantomime.

What it has done is cause us to all examine what the debates at the Assembly are really for. Unless directly relating to legislation being introduced debates are generally waffling for the sake of waffling about special interests relating to constituencies.

Or to have a pop at a Minister – which, frankly, is like shooting fish in a barrel; very easy, but with an after-taste.

Paisley the Younger may be close to the mark in his criticism of the standards of debate at Parliament Buildings – and the standards of grammar. We surely are not alone when our teeth grind as verb agreements are torn asunder by the serried ranks of MLAs on a regular basis! But Mr Paisley should also be aware that the like of Prime Minister’s Question Time is a set-piece zoo-like spectacle of the worst kind.

Here, constrained by the constitutional conveniences of consensual politics, debates are less engaging, rhetoric a skill less-deployed, and the semi-literate can turn a phrase pre-prepared for them.

The real question should be whether it is effective. As the mother of Parliaments, and the legislative home of all reserved and excepted matters, not to mention all English laws, Westminster has a lot more work to do.

On a pro rata basis the Assembly gets through quite a lot of work – all be it that last time out they did a lot of that in the closing weeks. The debates, as such, are the public window-dressing for the beating heart of the Assembly, which can usually be found in the bear-pits of Assembly statutory committees. There lies the real fun, and where unfortunately too few bother to watch or attend the delights of MLAs quizzing civil servants.

Tuition feeble decision not taken

ONE of the advantages of a mandatory coalition – and yes we are assured there is at least one - is that one does not need to rush to a conclusion.

One of the disadvantages of a mandatory coalition – and yes we are aware there are many - is that eventually one must come to some sort of a conclusion.

The Alliance Party may have been delighted to get in on the big act with a seat by right at the top table, but soon Minister for Employment and Learning, Dr Stephen Farry, might find it is the hot seat.

The reason became all too clear at this week’s oral Assembly questions, when Dolores Kelly asked about student tuition fees. For those with memory loss, over the past year there have been quite a few protests about student tuition fees; with the majority of students thinking an increase is pretty much a bad idea!

For Dr Farry there is a confluence of factors rolling together: a need to make a decision being the first factor!

Then there is the fact that a decision must be taken by September so that the loans can be sorted out for the following academic year.

After that there is the not inconsiderable task of shaping third level education to meet the employment needs of both international and local employers – not to mention the academics who live by the axiom of publish or die when it comes to tenure!

Next is the fact that our two universities are bleating about the cuts they are being forced to make as it is, without the problems that may ensue if they do not get either more money from higher fees or more money from the Executive.

And finally, Dr Farry will have to get all his new found Executive chums to agree to whatever decision is made by “September at the latest”.

We have a cunning plan: one which will help Dr Farry and his Executive chums in the long run. First – any degree that includes the words “dance” or “fashion” go immediately.

Next: any degrees in journalism – out! Politics? Seriously? Only for those not studying what passes for politics here! Agriculture? That’s a college course. And Art! No, no, no! If you can colour in between the lines award yourself an ‘A’ level and don’t even think about an art degree. There, they’d saved a wee fortune right off.

But seriously – yes we can be serious for a minute or two – Dr Farry must steer the middle ground between recommending a sensible fee structure that still enables a wide range of students access to degree courses, while maintaining the integrity and teaching standards befitting our universities.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Yellow pack – what’s that then your honour?

THE row between Justice Minister David Ford and the legions of lawyers rumbles on with impoverished legal eagles having to auction the Astin Martin and buy some of the cheaper Scotch from supermarket shelves.

Amidst the tooing and froing a curious phrase emerged from one of the legal combatants in this curious strike action. He alleged that the Minister wanted “Yellow Pack justice”.

Younger listeners and viewers will, no doubt have been bemused by that turn-of-phrase from Pearse MacDermott of the Solicitors Criminal Bar Association.

For those of you who recall the halcyon days of Stewarts and Crazy Prices supermarkets, Yellow Pack products were own label products deliberately marketed as being cheap and cheerful without any frills.

So, it seems that Mr MacDermott chose an apt metaphor in his allegation.

But wait a cotton-picking moment, Yellow Pack goods slipped from the shelves around 20 years ago.

We can deduce from this that perhaps it is the case that Mr MacDermott has not done any food shopping in supermarkets for around 20 years, as he has someone do it for him.

Or was it a very deliberate attempt to force those who were too young to remember Stewarts and Crazy Prices to extrapolate the metaphor, thereby achieving a tortuous victory...

We’re not sure which it was, but it was a strange choice of words, but still one that caught the mood of this increasingly rancorous dispute.

Still, now the English firms are threatening to poach the home turf, we’ll see how firm some of the law firms hold as revenue trickles away to some solicitor from across the North Channel.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Are the Ulster Unionists written off?

EVERY good thing must come to an end: that fine glass of Beaujolais, that exquisite steak, or that wondrous dessert the local lodge prepared.

But Mr Tom Elliott is hoping that he will not be savouring the end of the UUP, but rather a hearty repast before mounting a resurgence.

Last week at the UUP AGM Mr Elliott said that after just nine months in charge and one relatively disastrous election it was time to look at candidate selection and generally sort out the mess.

However, rather curiously he did admit there was division in the party, but that members should present a united front.

Now, analyse that for a wee while. We’re rowing, but as long as the neighbours don’t call the cops it will be okay...

The party has taken a hammering and as yet has failed to emerge the other side. If there is dissension within, surely a strong leadership would simply kick it out?

Oh, but then again kick too many out and what are you left with...

Bout ye David!

ACCORDED the honour of addressing the Norn Iron Assembly Prime Minister David Cameron gently chided the assembled MLAs that they needed to get on with getting on as he explained what ‘bread and butter’ politics really are.

It was a little like the public school headmaster telling assembled pupils that they needed to get their priorities straight.

There was, no doubt, straight talking in Stormont Castle when Cameron and attendant puppy Paterson met Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson. Such straight talking, we are led to believe included: “Look David, you’ll have an extra wee bun whether you like it or not!” Another example was “David, What actually are you doing here?”

And it is that latter question that is perhaps most pertinent one. Was there a clear goal behind the visit? There’s no election in the offing, the edifice of powers-sharing is relatively stable and there was no international media in attendance.

Then it came to us – he was trying to avoid a very public spat with Archbishop of Cantebury Dr Rowan Williams, and mulling over whether the Lords Templar should vote to get rid of the Lords Spirtual?

Monday, 6 June 2011

Largesse dispensed

WHO gave the new ministers a cheque-book? Health Minister Edwin Poots throws open the doors and announces that Altangelvin hospital in Derry/Londonderry will have a radiotherapy unit. Then Roads Minister Danny Kennedy announces a West Link upgrade for Belfast.

It seems in the run-up to the summer recess the MLAs are determined to be nice to everyone.

But we fear within this velvet glove are a set of knuckle dusters, and hidden in the folder is a cleaver sharpened and ready for cuts.

For, former Chief Examiner of ‘A’ Level Economics, and current Minister for Finance Sammy Wilson seemed pretty sure that we need to cut our cloth in these tough times to match a shrinking budget.

Which sort of means that all these nice new shiny announcements will be paid for by slashed services?

Whether we like it or not the books have to balance and harsh decisions will have to be taken.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Ahh wick like it’s a wikileak

JUST when you thought the world had gotten over itself with the ranting, raving and finger pointing about who met whom and who said what in this part of the world when rampaging right out of the news pages is a wikileak.

The internet rapscallions passed on cables that implied/inferred/said outright that DUP and Sinn Féin were in direct talks before the iconic 2007 face-to-face. And we wonder why this is news?

You see most people will tell you that Sinn Féin and the DUP talked before 2007. It just happened. However the fact that the party said no contact was sanctioned means that if by chance there was a meeting, then there was deniability.

Hardly the stuff of Watergate...

At least there was some entertainment value at US officials rating Margaret Ritchie in none too pleasant terms and agreeing that the previous Taoiseach Brian Cowen’s ‘Biffo’ (Big ignorant fecker from Offally) nickname was appropriate.

It all leads to one question – what else is being said in confidential memos from other governments around the world.

Methinks we need a makeover for Norn Iron plc and some voice coaching for some of our MLAs...

Now that’s a bit rich!

WHO would have thunk it! MLAs are spending a wee fortune to have someone tell them how much they should be paid.

Now stay with us here, much as you might feel the urge to throw things around and stamp your feet please keep calm and remember there’s always BBC Radio Ulster’s Nolan Show to ring up and harangue.

Last year, the Assembly, not wanting to appear greedy, passed a law that said if and when they set up an independent panel to decide how much they get paid, they had to absolutely, without question, accept what it said.

So despite all their concerns about quangos and arm’s length bodies, MLAs have created a quango to decide how much they will get paid.

The cost to taxpayers will be £100,000+ and for that we’ll get three part-time ‘panellists’ at a cost of £19,000. Doing some simple maths that’s about £6,333.33 per panellist per year for what will probably amount to a day or two per month. Who will these panellists be? We are willing to bet they will be drawn from the hordes of non-executive directors floating from quango to quango in the twilight years of their earning.

The rest of the money will be £60,000 for support staff and £20,000 for specialist advice – for that read management consultant!

According to a BBC report, after the first year, annual costs will drop from £100,000 to £15,000 per year. We haven’t a clue why - although once they’ve said how much the men and women on the Hill are to get in their pay packets, what else will they be doing?

Now, almost certainly this panel will recommend a pay rise, given that MLAs for a long time have noted that colleagues in Scotland and Wales get loads more dosh than they do.

And the genius thing is that they have to, no doubt with heavy heart and much protestation, accept the pay rise: because they passed a law to that effect.

But before you all go “well they work hard and £43,000 isn’t a lot for the work they do” think again.

A fare whack of the MLAs get an additional salary, if they are “office holders”. This additional salary ranges from just over £2K up to a whopping £66k for the FM and dFM.

Ministers get an additional £37k and chairs of committees get over £11k.

No doubt the independent panel will up those rates too.

Before you go any further, have a wee think about the expenses they receive too. For driving into work they get 40p a mile, which means some members pocket several thousand pounds a year. And cyclists aren’t left out, they get 20p per mile for, well we’re not exactly sure what they get it for.

Sure and then there’s the double jobbers...

Let’s face it, being an MLA is hard work, but is it any harder work than a nurse or a teacher? Yeah that is simplistic, but it’s hard not to think that way when the MLAs are going quango crazy to get a pay rise.