Friday, 18 March 2011

Welcome to Oirelaand El Pesidente

WELL the Shamrock has been well drowned and lo and behold El Presidente Obama is making the journey to the Republic of Oirishness.

Now will Barack take the next step and come north, where we used to associate the name Barack with the misspelled name of where security forces resided and paramilitaries used ‘barrack busters’?

And, should he nip across the border for tea and tiffins at Hillsborough Castle and a wee natter at the Assembly, then he would just be doing what the previous two incumbents of the Whitehouse have done.

But there is a slight problem - no crisis. If one tracks presidential visits over the past decade or so, they have mostly come at “crucial” points in Norn Iron politics. A timely visit from an actual, proper, statesman is seen as the order of the day to resolve the issue.

To ensure President Obama makes the wee jaunt north of the border, the challenge for our politicians is to get returned on 5th May and have an almighty row.
You’ll have to let the presidential aides know in advance, of course, but the actual row shouldn’t be a problem for our MLAs: most of them could start a row in an empty house.

In the meantime, genealogists in Ireland have discovered Barack has Oirish ancestors from Co. Offaly. This is the current ‘ancestral arms race’ going on between the Republic of Ireland and Norn Iron – to see whether north or south has had more presidents... So far Norn Iron is slightly in the lead but when the first Hispanic president is elected what are the odds that they’ll find his Mexican great, great Porta Rican grandfather met a man that sold him an Irish terrier...

Chill winds

IT emerged this week that almost half of Northern Ireland homes suffer from fuel poverty – that is a large proportion of their budget goes on heating their homes, with many unable to do so regularly.

Social Development Minister and self-proclaimed scourge of HM Treasury, Alex Attwood, has launched a £127m programme to replace old boilers and generally help out those facing the deep chill.

Now some have been less than enthused by the whole package but it raises a couple of issues.

First up, is this a minister that was really opposed to the budget. He got money for fuel poverty and abstained from the Budget vote. Surely the highly principled MLA had not been bought off?

Next issue is how did we get to this state of affairs? How did we end up with people living in a developed country that has so many people struggling with their fuel bills?

And finally, if Mr Attwood can get to meet the utility companies and oil suppliers so quickly, can he please pass on their phone numbers to see if we can cadge a discount too?

Monday, 14 March 2011

Oh fudge it, it’s the budget

WELL hurrah! Gosh darn it we have a budget for l’il ole Norn Iron!

After all the hullabaloo, backbiting and overall nastiness we have a NI Executive budget for the next four years.

Rest easy people because we now know just where the money will be spent…okay that’s a wee bit of a fib. We sort of know where it will be spent, and officials have been beavering away allocating the pounds, shillings and pence to various programmes.

But programmes are part of the picture. You see after all the fighting there is still a Programme for Government to be agreed post- May 5th. Take a deep sigh folks, because we have an election fight – already underway – and the rows over the Programme for Government.

We were watching the shenanigans over the budget row and a debate occasionally broke out.

It is hard not to feel a little depressed at the sheer predictability of the fights and shouting matches. Did anyone really expect mature, thoughtful consideration? Did anyone really expect our elected members to discuss in a calm, deliberate deployment of facts and figures?

So, what did we, the electorate learn from the debate that preceded the 67-31 vote budget approval?

Well, the biggest suspense was whether the UUP ministers would pack up their ministerial bags. Well, they didn’t. But by not voting they were in breach of the Stormont Assembly Ministerial code. Would Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness call on the Speaker to investigate? Would they be kicked out of office?

Of course not! If Michael McGimpsey or Danny Kennedy really expected the First Minister and deputy First Minister to give them more publicity through the process of investigation then it was a tactical error.

And, had they resigned it would have been seen as a futile gesture with barely three weeks until the dissolution of the Assembly.

On the other side of the row was it a tactical mistake to have such a public spat over health? Was the millions added to the health budget enough to stave off the very real picture of cuts to the frontline?

Ultimately the budget was a bun fight over cuts. As the Finance Minister Sammy Wilson was at pains to point out, cuts have to be made – end of story, no more debate.

Well apart from a couple of asides that are worth noting. Firstly, Social Development Minister Alex Attwood of the SDLP was not at the final vote – draw from that what you will but we cannot be bothered as boredom with the whole thing is now a wholesale malaise.

And, Sinn Féin are implementing cuts in Northern Ireland and fighting cuts in the Republic of Ireland – surely this is not an all-island approach.