Friday, 21 December 2012

Eye on the Hill

Merry Protests and a happy redundancy notice

So here it is merry Xmas,
Everybody's burning cars,
Look to the future, and
Unemployment in our bars...
(Sung to the tune of Slade’s “Merry Xmas Everybody")

in Christmas 2012 and while the Mayan prediction for the end of the world has yet to come to pass, the prospect of economic growth, once the 'flegship' policy of the Northern Ireland Executive, lies limp on the flagpole of unfettered protests.

after seven hours of talks, our political leaders managed a few short paragraphs of the strictly bland variety. No doubt Messers Robinson and McGuinness worked marvels on their trips abroad but can one see foreign direct investors rushing to set up shop here as protests paralyse our ‘wee country’.

, more protests are planned with the intention of bringing much of the country to a standstill. For the thousands flying home for the festive season, there must be a temptation to hop right back on to the return flight.

For those of us who remember the worst of
the dark days, we know that this is but an inconvenience, compared to the 70's, 80's and early 90's. But in a connected, social media world of 2012 it is a sure thing that the image of masked protestors has been seen in every far flung corner.

The leaders of the mainstream unionist parties may wring their hands but for more than a dozen days of protests they have not been able to put the genie back in the bottle.

At a time when polling showed significant support for the status quo
, all that has been achieved has been confusion amongst our political leaders and despair from the business man and woman. At a time when bars, restaurants and shops should be counting profits during the economic downturn they are counting cancellations and over-stocked shelves.
Protesters have talked about an erosion of British identity as if it was a rock to worn down by the attrition of nationalist wind and rain.

The irony of course
is that the educational under-achievement in many 'working class' areas of Northern Ireland, particularly Belfast, means that the very protestors, and their neighbours on the other side of the interface, are ill-equipped to ride out the maelstrom of economic maladies.

Maybe there is
a silent wish from some of our leaders that the Mayan prophecy would have saved them a lot of hassle in 2013...

And a very happy holiday to you all

ALL of us at Chambré Public Affairs wish you a very Merry Christmas, festive good wishes and a happy New Year.

So long as the Mayans are wrong, we'll see you all in 2013, when we will once again be at your service for professional public affairs and communications support. And, remember, as the song says, things can only get better’.
No virus found in this message.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Eye on the Hill

Frack aff!

WELL the UK Government has decided that sustainability in gas supply has over-ridden environmental concerns, and the hydraulic fracturing of gas shale (otherwise known as ‘fracking’) should be permitted in several areas of the UK.
Gasps of horror from environmentalists, gasps of delight from the fracking companies ensued.

Here in Norn Iron we do pay over the odds for gas (or so it seems when the bill lands with a thud on the doormat) but we also have some green and pleasant land of our own.
So green and so pleasant that the G8 is de-camping to the lush county of Fermanagh next year – and you can bet any drill rigs will not be put up before then.

Whether they are ever erected to suck the gas from deep in the bowels of the earth remains, according to our very own Minister for the Environment, Alex Attwood, a decision for the Assembly.
Mr Attwood insists that the permission to frack will depend on a lot of planning processes and may end with a public inquiry. Green Party MLA, Steven Agnew will no doubt be pushing that all the way.

Who in the end will have the greenest credentials? And who will claim the credit should lots of new jobs be created in Fermanagh (and Leitrim).

For sale – job lot of Government
“ORDER, Order!”
I’ll take two cars and a dishwasher please!”

This could be the conversation in some government departments as lots of state property deemed surplus to requirements come under the auctioneers hammer. The aforementioned cars and dishwasher are joined by chainsaws, property in Co. Down and a variety of other assorted items.

The auctions have netted public finances around £3m so far, and David McNarry is now asking other departments to tell how they disposed of assets to see if anymore can be auctioned off. We can think of a few MLAs who might be considered as being surplus to requirements (no names).

But what is a more urgent requirement is for Government to tell us when the next auction is taking place! Mr McNarry’s questions have revealed that there are some very tasty bargains to be had, and one of those chainsaws would be perfect under the Christmas Tree for ‘er indoors’ to carve the turkey with.

Fly the Flag

BEEN on a protest? Been in a traffic jam? Received a death threat? Did you do your Christmas shopping online rather than risk the city centre? Then you too have been part of the unfolding of the flag debacle.

On and on it goes and nobody knows where it will end.
Even the DUP are getting a wee bit fed up, as trader after trader complains about lost revenue and more angry motorists clog up the airwaves. Admittedly the protests seem to be causing slightly less mayhem over the past two days, but we’re not holding our breaths for them diminishing.

The first political casualty (metaphorical, thankfully not literal) of the ongoing dispute is the removal of the UUP whip from Lagan Valley MLA Basil McCrea. If leader Mike Nesbitt continues along these lines there will be nobody to whip into shape and self-flagellation will be the only course of action open to him.

Whatever happens from now on, allying the party with the DUP and street protestors could be a move that may damage the UUP at the polls next time out. Meanwhile, with the whip removed Mr McCrea is taking the Christmas period to reflect on his position in the party. While Basil shops around his position on the Committee for Employment and Learning will be up for grabs in the January sales.

It’s the magic number…
IS seven the magic number for Stormont? While the temper tantrums of both ‘sides’ vent on the streets, and police officers begin to recover from injuries and trauma, the reform of government departments has taken a step forward.

A report from the Assembly and Executive Review Committee came up with the number seven.

In simple terms the departments of health, education and justice stay, as does OFMDFM with some reform of its function.
The other three departments are a hilarious shoe-horning of functions that in a Faustian pact of expediency one day may make sense.

We have a proposed Department of the Economy. Sounds like a good idea, but this department may be subject to global forces beyond its control, and experience negative growth while the triple dip recession has run out of Taramasolata.

We have the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Development: which no doubt will be running up and down the A5 fighting legal battles, while revolt from farmers and the entire population west of the Bann threatens the environment with a surplus of banners and placards.

We then have indecision. For the committee suggested a Department for Urban and Social Development or a new Department of Communities/Communities and Social Welfare/Community, Housing and Local Government.

We don’t even know where to start with that bonfire of the vanities. Pistols at dawn between the Permanent Secretaries, loser gets one of those two monstrosities. MLAs will be seen fleeing from the Stormont Estate lest they end up on the committee scrutinising that lot…

One way or another it seems that the current 12 departments will be down to seven. It is now only a matter of time. There will be viability studies, consultations, reports as officials are “seen to be doing something” and the two larger parties attempt to cut a deal.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Eye on the Hill...

Politicians falling over themselves…

WHILE political leaders have been wrong-footed before, it seems that this week someone tied their laces together. All hues of the spectrum have been tripping over themselves like a Premier League striker trying to win a penalty.

While it is always difficult to imagine scenarios in advance, especially on issues such as flags and symbolism, upon which emotions run deep in this tiny part of planet earth, the ensuing violence and intimidation is depressing.

This lack of political leadership, co-operation and courage is lamentable and in stark contrast to the majority of the long suffering citizens who got up on Friday morning and went to work as normal.

While the folks on the hill have been so intent on falling out, whilst Belfast City Council got its knickers knotted, and east Belfast foments with 'outrage' over the union flag, in general the good people of our wee country got into their cars, boarded buses, took the train and got on with their lives.

While a dangerous game of one-up-manship takes place, death threats issued and social media abuzz with sectarian vitriol, hundreds of ordinary workers from engineering firms and other businesses are facing redundancy and concerned with how to continue to provide for their families.

Trade missions that promised so much will have those same foreign investors thinking twice about Northern Ireland, and wondering if it is all worth it after all?

It makes us question - what is at the nub of it?

Is it the fact that the Alliance Party has gained a foothold in east Belfast prompted a reaction from unionist parties?

Is it the fact that the Alliance Party is flexing its muscles too much?
Is it the fact that Belfast City Council no longer has an overall unionist majority?

Is it the fact that symbols mean so much that they have become sacred cows, never to be touched?

Is it really that a flag flown atop of Belfast City Council 365 days a year, has been taken down on all but a few designated days?

We could look at all these questions and never get the same answer from two people.

We also don’t want to ascribe blame, but we must note the fact that the economy in Northern Ireland does not need scenes of a political party’s constituency offices burnt out. It does not need scenes of police being assaulted on one side of the City Hall while fearful shoppers abandon the continental christmas market because of the disturbances on the other side.

And as we look forward with a certain amount of trepidation to Monday's debates at Stormont, we can only hope that our politicians refocus on the issues of the economy they repeatedly claim to be focused on. We hope things now moves to a period of talk, talk, not war, war.

Budgets in fall?

AUTUMNAL statements from the government are somewhat of a curate's egg, bits are good and bits are bad. The ever influential 'markets' barely reacted to Mr Osbourne's statement and while newspaper headlines variously warned of or acclaimed the impact nothing much else happened on the wider stage.

Even our finance minister, Sammy Wilson was somewhat muted in his response, but then he has bigger fish to fry. While the money pledged to the Executive for capital investment is no doubt welcome, the ongoing consequences of rows over public sector pensions and getting the welfare reform ducks in a row with Westminster's timetable, is perhaps why Wilson was so guarded in his comments… unless you count the chancellor letting the NI electricity generators of the hook when it comes to the carbon cost floor [Editor’s note: ????].

Yes, we understand it, but we have neither the time nor inclination to spend our time writing out an explanation that would ultimately bore you (hey we are genuinely interested in this type of issue, but even we grow a little heavy eyed when the explanation comes around!)

However, the basic issue is that energy bills will not rise by the heading spinning 10-20% had not Mr Wilson won this concession on the carbon cost floor.

Other good news, and one that must have the number crunchers at the Department of Finance and Personnel and the economists at Invest NI frothing over their calculators, is the reduction in corporation tax. Unfortunately the reduction is not exclusively for NI, but across the UK, but still it is a step in the direction the Executive must want.

We believe that on hearing this news the entire Executive went on to Google, checked out where the nearest Starbucks was and ordered some Christmas presents on Amazon. Oh, hold on it seems those companies have a somewhat controversial record in terms of paying their corporation tax into the UK exchequer’s coffers.

Hi Ya Hilary!

BOUT ye Hilary! How ya doin? Big Bill okay? Sorry about the mess, but listen could you do us a wee favour? You're sure? Great! What is it? Yeah, can you please clear off while we have a wee local difficulty to sort out!

No offence madam secretary of state, but having all those media types here when we've a few uncivil, civil disturbances isn't doing anybody any favours.

You see we can normally have these spats cleared up in a day or so, without it being covered globally.  We just had the media over for the traditional summer rioting pageants to offer them some little local colour stories.

But coming so close to Christmas, when the lights have already been switched on, it’s not such a good move.

Think about it! Would it not have been better to come over when you knew for certain that there would have been no riots, civil disturbances, ugly rows and general huffiness? It would have been a much smarter move.

That way you could still have trumpeted about how you and yer hubbie played such a big role in delivering peace to Norn Iron and announced you were running for President....oh did we let that secret out! Damn!

Friday, 30 November 2012

Eye on the Hill

Gr8 to have G8
THE world is a big place. You may think it is a long drive from Belfast to Portrush, or from Bangor to Newry but that does not even give you a sense of scale compared to the world. The journey from Omagh to Lisburn may seem tortuous but it is but a small jaunt on the global scale.

And in this great big world there are a lot of people – really there are billions of them. And there are hundreds and thousands of reporters wanting to cover the great and the good. And frankly, we can’t see them all fitting into Fermanagh.

Fields will be rented for a tented village of reporters; and the reporters will want to rent the next-door field for protesters ready to burn a village in protest at something or another.

Yes, Prime Minister David Cameron announced last week that the G8 is coming to the land of lakes and mists, the mystical land of Fermanagh…

With the Big Cats of the world economies coming prowling there will be thousands of support staff, thousands of security personnel and thousands of reporters. In the course of research (we looked up Wikipedia) we discovered that the county of Fermanagh covers 715 square miles. Taking away the watery bits of Lough Erne, that leaves insufficient dry land for all the prime ministers, presidents and global brokers.

We have two concerns. One, can all the dissident ‘terrorist’ numpties and riot addicts please go away and not try to represent Norn Iron up as something it is not.

The second is that Fermanagh translates as ‘men of the monks’. We hope that the global leaders keep the spirit of faith, hope and charity to the fore as they make their moves on the economic chessboard.

We also hope that our stall selling exclusive G8 World tour t-shirts, the GR8 Ulster Breakfast Fry-up and bags of Tayto Cheese ‘n’ Onion crisps will attract the appropriate passing trade.

Knock, knock…
“KNOCK, Knock!” “Who’s there?” “Joe.” “Joe who?” “Joe Public.”
“Sorry, but you can’t come in.”
“Why not?” “You just can’t.” “Why?” “Just because we said so.”

We dream of a time of total accountability, when transparent government is transparently delivered, for all to muse over the findings, decisions and progress.

Then we woke up and the dream was gone, replaced by the closed doors of committee meetings in Parliament Buildings.
This week just past had five meetings of committees which were all or in part closed to members of the public. While one, a briefing on legal advice, was legitimately closed to avoid prejudicing any future action, others varied from the sublime to the ridiculous.

On the ridiculous side the Ad Hoc Committee on Conformity with Equality Requirements: Welfare Reform was listed as: Closed from 2.34pm (2 mins), suspended from 2.36pm (1 mins), closed from 2.37pm (4 mins), and public from 2.41pm (31 mins). Look it up on the Assembly website and that is exactly what is says!

The Business Committee was also closed for three minutes, but the Justice Committee was closed in total, for the entire evidence session with Attorney General John Larkin QC on the criminal law on abortion, while the Committee for Education was closed for a 25 minute session with the Assembly Bill Office.

The week before there were three closed committee sessions, and the week before that there were a further three closed sessions.

Now, apart from commercial confidentiality, protecting individual’s identity in relation to personnel matters and ongoing legal matters there should be no circumstances when any part of Assembly proceedings are closed to voters and taxpayers.

When a session is closed it only piques the curiosity! An open session is more likely to be disregarded unless it is something that affects you, or in our case, our clients. But close the doors and the very nature of our beings mean we feel the urge to know more. And in the wake of Leveson and the BBC scandals there will be too few willing to ask the searching questions…

On a sickie
OH dear, oh dear, oh dear, we’re sorry to hear that you are sick, and please get well soon.

That must be the sentiment resounding round the corridors of the civil service, as once again we learn that it has missed its target of an average of 10 days sickness. It may be down from previous years, but it still is over that mythical target of 10 days average.

You will be pleased to know that the Department of Health has the lowest average days off sick, which is sort of to be expected.

The Department of Justice is the worst offender, with an average 12.6 days off on a sickie.

But we now ask the ladies to put down the cudgels, set aside the dirty looks and forgive us. We are duty bound to point out that women take more sickies than men. This is not us saying this, so you can stop throwing hairbrushes now! It is the NI Statistics and Research Agency!

We also could not help but note that the largest number of people who are off sick are those who are absent because of anxiety, stress, depression or other psychiatric illnesses.

While we would all like to see a bigger private sector in Northern Ireland, the constant stream of criticism about the public sector may be having a real tangible impact in the era of austerity.

In simple terms if you cut staff in an office, less people are doing the same amount of work. It is inevitable that the workload will create a more stressful environment, leading to higher levels of sickness. And then the civil servants are told their wages are too high and their pensions are inflated, making the stressed more stressed  by implied guilt.

Rather than dwell on the rights and wrongs is it more appropriate to ask how this is being managed at senior level. If reductions are being made, how is this being compensated for in productivity and how are Executive ministers communicating this?

The answer…nobody knows!
We’re all a little bit more cautious in 2012
THERE used to be a certain gay abandon that Northern Ireland’s populace frolicked through their lives, never fearing that a trip, sporting accident or paper cut would lead them to pain and agony.

We had our world famed health service, with trauma specialists, kindly junior doctors and skilled nurses on hand to apply a sticking plaster, weave a few cunning stitches and bring the recently dead back to life with a few hundred volts.

The days when we could turn up with an ailing child or ill grandparent and be greeted with a concerned gaze and ushered into a cubicle now seem to be something from bygone halcyon days of idyllic pastures when all the summers were sunny and snow came every Christmas.

Now turn up at an A&E department it is like you have turned up at military field hospital; trolleys filled with the merely very ill, cubicles filled with the really, really ill, ambulances backed up outside and if you are lucky and you’re only just seriously injured you might get seen the next day.

Reports that circulated last week showed that not one of Northern Ireland’s A&E departments was meeting the four hour target to treat patients.

Many reasons have been espoused as to why this had happened. The closure of the Belfast City Hospital A&E department; the lack of junior consultants, registrars and other staff wanting to pursue a career in emergency medicine being among some of the reasons.

Health minister, Edwin Poots, has been among those in the firing line; although to be fair one retired consultant told the BBC that every time Mr Poots or other officials were due to appear, a purge was undertaken and fresh bleach was sprinkled over the place, so maybe the minister didn’t see the true picture.

But really we were staggered when the report acclaimed that there were less people waiting 12 hours or more for treatment. Surely they are kidding! Surely this is a joke!

What reason can there be for remarking about anyone having to wait in an A&E department for more than 12 hours?

We can only presume that managers at health trusts are trying to pre-empt any privatisation scheme by charging patients waiting more than 12 hours hotel rates.

Why else can anyone with any managerial nouse really allow this to continue? MLAs and ministers may rant, but ultimately the management of the system must be improved. We already have out-of-hours GP’s services, we have a plethora of information on the internet from trusted sites like NHS direct, but none of this will stop sportsmen and women being injured. None of this will stop older people needing emergency admission because of respiratory failure.  None of this will stop fractures because of slips on icy ground. None of this will stop industrial accidents or road traffic crashes.

So Northern Ireland’s health trusts need a plan to reduce this. Shiny new buildings and calling a few beds an ‘admissions ward’ are not enough.

We suggest that Minister Poots with colleagues on the Stormont health committee arrive at Northern Ireland’s A&E departments unannounced a couple of evenings, then call the managers to join them on the frontline. However, we won’t be there as we really cannot stand the sight of blood.

Four packets of fags
FOUR packets of 20 cigarettes, six pints or a half decent two-course meal in a city centre snazzy eaterie. That’s the cost to all of us for legal aid cases.

Yep – Minister for Justice David Ford has his beady eye on the legal community and the costs of legal aid once again.
According to recent reports, legal aid costs every person in Norn Iron £29.28 compared to a cost per person of £11.26 in bonny Scotland.

And it is in civil cases that legal aid also seems to be costing us a small fortune. For those of us with a memory span greater than an MLAs, last year solicitors and barristers went on strike when Minister Ford cut legal aid in criminal cases. Will we see a similar lefty response from the bewigged and besuited?

They’ve already told news outlets that as barristers are so smart and intelligent it is only they who can represent the most vulnerable in society and that they are the guardians or truth, justice and nice homes in North Down.

In a head to head, who do we fancy in this fight? Minister Ford gets the popular vote; the legal eagles get the grudging support of unions backed by the Law Society and Bar Council, and it seems like a stand-off.

But which brave barrister and stout solicitor will stand firm in the face of the rage from a resident of the Falls or Shankill Road who is told that they are on strike. Which, legal firm will have the courage to say to the claimant that they’re withholding services  in a wages row to an unemployed worker owed back wages. If they do, we salute you Mr and Ms Legal Eagle (and any strike should last about a week and two Nolan shows….).

Friday, 16 November 2012

Eye on the Hill

Paddles will be provided…

IN an attempt to reduce soaring losses on the Portaferry to Strangford ferry the Department for Regional Development has announced that in future all travellers will be issued with long oars, sit on benches and help row part of the way as the Minister for Regional Development, Danny Kennedy, beats out the rhythm on a drum made from the cold dead bones and the flesh of officials.

Well it worked in Ancient Greece?

Yes, this week it emerged that the essential ferry across Strangford Lough has lost £4m over the last three years, and while the DRD says the ferry will still make its merry way across the lough they were looking at making savings.

While we still reckon issuing passengers with oars is a viable option, we may need to consider a few wee matters first of all. Like why did no-one notice for three years that it was making a loss? Or, if they did, did they not think to let anyone know?

Cutting down the number of sailings has already been rejected by local representatives, so various other options have to be considered. Narrowing the lough would upset the green lobby so we thought that the minister should take off his cap and use the same approach in getting funding for the recently opened bridge over Carlingford Lough - go with his cap  in hand to Europe. If that is not an option, we know a place that can sell you a job lot of oars.

Busy times

IT’S all go at the Assembly next week with all manner of fun and games – sometimes we wonder why we ever complained about the boring nature of business there.
With our First Minister and deputy First Minister on a trade mission in China, it seems the MLAs took turn to line up some rows, fights and general disagreements.

The beaming duo has said there are dozens of leads for local companies – an achievement in itself, given the competition across the globe for the burgeoning Chinese market.
With so much gloomy news on the job front, any lead is worthwhile, especially as our MLAs warm up for the week ahead.

One person defiant is Jim Wells, veteran DUP MLA, who is facing a vote of censure after making some allegedly un-parliamentary remarks to a former special adviser to culture minister Carál Ní Chuilín.
The motion of censure is being brought not by Sinn Féin. Nor is it being tabled and brandished by the SDLP… No those renowned hardliners the Alliance Party will see their colleague and deputy chair of the Committee on Standards and Privileges, Kieran McCarthy table the motion.

Leaving this matter aside (well until Monday when we can watch it on car crash television, or as we prefer to call it Assembly live) we cannot but wonder where any such future votes will come from.
Will the DUP censure the UUP for being, well, being the UUP? Will the SDLP sanction Sinn Féin for overtly being sanctimonious? Will Steven Agnew of the Green Party censure the entire Assembly for making him sit next to TUV leader Jim Allister?

Or will the electorate censure the lot of them at the next Assembly election.

Happy Mondays

THE start of the week always sees a run of Assembly business with the first of two weekly plenary sessions, when members seek to make a point to the wider chamber in the often vain attempt to get an executive minister to agree with their position.
Last week we had boxing, building and diabetes amongst the private members debates, while on Monday child poverty, cross-border education and employment law were considered in the chamber.
How we wait with bated breath for the outstanding delivery of MLAs, their use of rhetorical devices and the magnificence of lingual dexterity.

So we decided to seek some gems from our elected representatives during recent debates. To paraphrase the old TV show only the names have been changed…but of course you can always check the official report. Here’s a couple of samples:
“To be honest, I do not fully understand VAT” – well in that case why refer to it?
“We have not seen the worst of it yet”   - happy thoughts!
“They bring it on themselves. They eat too much, they drink too much and they do not take enough exercise” – Ministerial comment on people with Type 2 Diabetes or about his fellow MLAs?

Each and every plenary session is filmed and recorded and transcribed into the official report.  You can therefore easily set yourself to enjoy next weeks’ gems from our elected representatives! What? You say you can’t because you “have a life”.  Ahh well that means once more your faithful servants at Chambré PA will be on hand to scrutinise the debates for our clients and review those issues of concerns up in yon big house at the top of the hill.

Commendable but unrealistic

ONE has to commend Dr William McCrea MP for bringing a debate on suicide to the floor of the Commons – it is an awful scourge on Northern Ireland. However, we do wonder how realistic is his proposal to ask internet service providers (ISPs) to block access to suicide websites.

It takes no great skill for anyone with rudimentary web skills to get round web blocks and use a variety of methods to access sites – whether they be gambling sites, illegally downloaded music, pornography or social media – that are supposed to be blocked by ISPs and work place firewalls.

Indeed this isn’t the first time that proposals to block suicide websites has been brought up – former health minister Michael McGimpsey also sought the same block.
However, as commendable as this proposal is, perhaps it is looking at the symptom not the cause.
Mental health services have been struggling with the issue of suicide and depression for many years. With unemployment and the consequences of the downturn – not to mention welfare reform – biting ever harder experts in psychiatry and psychology are warning of more people suffering stress, dealing with severe depression and all the ingredients potentially leading to attempting to take their own lives.

 In this context, Dr McCrea should be lobbying our own health and social care minister, pressing our education minister to ensure that good mental health policies are in place in our schools, and urging the Executive to ensure the full implementation of the Bamford recommendations on mental health.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Eye on the Hill

Well it was all in the back of the cupboard…
LYING around, somewhere, in the coffers of the Northern Ireland Executive is a stash of cash, from which the Executive pulled £200m this week.
The money is being ploughed into an economic and jobs package. For this the Executive should be applauded.
Any initiative that sees jobs and training boosted, while helping the hard pressed construction sector gets a wee hand by speeding up school building and road projects is to be welcomed.
But where does one find £200m in these cash-straitened times? It not exactly new money and in subsequent media, there was a suggestion that it will come from some of the monies that departments weren’t going to spend. Rather than handing it back to the Treasury, better to invest it.
As Gordon Brown would say, this is prudence at the heart of government.
A larger mystery, however, has emerged in the wake of the announcement…on any given day in any given country this type of investment would have been trumpeted and analysed in the media for a week.
Here in Norn Iron, rather than celebrate this, the focus has been on doom facing sector a, while sector b is in free-fall or some such cliché.
It seems that in the absence of a good old political feud the newsrooms are rather pre-occupied with a determined race to the lowest common denominator.

Wants it all before he’s 17…
THERE is a line in a song from the 1970s, which goes: “just a kid with a crazy dream, wants it all before he’s 17”. Now while that may be a yearning for success, it is not clear that the “kid” wanted to be a participant in democracy.
However, in these less decadent days, the urge to rock ‘n’ roll excess has been tempered by the lure of fifteen minutes of fame on the Simon Cowell production line of talentless media whores and…the desire to vote from the age of 16.
This week, a majority of MLAs voted to lower the voting age from 18 to 16. Not that this will happen any time soon without Westminster’s say so. The lowering of the voting age for the Scottish referendum seems to have been part of negotiations between Salmond and Cameron. And the Tories have not been the party of progressive extension of the franchise in past times.
There is, however, a compelling argument to lower the voting age. (Well we think it’s compelling!)
By the time the average teenager has emerged from the exuberance of 13, they have become a wonderfully sullen bulk of a proto-adult, occasionally capable of conversation and normally engrossed in ‘gaming’, unfulfilled desires and the urgent need to do everything that they’re not allowed to do until they are 18, like buy booze…and vote.
The one thing that we did note during the fascinating debate in the Assembly was the failure to deploy any scientific, psychological evidence, or seek evidence from the wonderful world of neuroscience. We didn’t either, but you get our point.
Much was said about maturity, and much was said about the issues on the age when a teen can legally buy a lager, watch an 18 certificate movie, or play an 18-rated computer game. We hate to break it to the members of the assembly but observing the real world only briefly we know that a significant proportion of 16-year-olds have downed an alcopop, watched an 18-rated DVD or played a gore-riddled computer game…they have also probably watched some really dodgy material on the internet.
The facts of this show that regulation in these areas does not work effectively; that speaks more about the regularity framework, parental supervision and what a 16 or 17-year-old is capable of absorbing and digesting and acting upon. Despite the birth of violent computer games we have yet to see the streets of our wee country ripped asunder with teenagers on crime sprees á la Grand Theft Auto.
Thus, it seems the average teen can distinguish between reality and fiction. Therefore, we judge that the average teenager will be able to tell the difference between an MLA’s reality and the reality of life as a 16-year-old, which makes them almost the perfect voter.

APPARENTLY we’re putting pupils first; that is according to the latest educational initiative from the Department of Education.
Far be it from us to criticise this, no doubt, well intended vision of our ‘learning’ system, delivered at a timely juncture with the Education Bill being considered. But we have a major problem with the title of this plan.
‘Putting Pupils First’ - who else would you put first? The entire education system is designed to provide education for the pupils! If we are now putting pupils first, who was first before the Minister made his Assembly announcement?
And, if we are putting pupils first we wonder will pupils be asked about these wonderful proposals? Dangerous radical times we are in, should we ever ask the people who are being put first to have first say.
We fully anticipate the day when the pupils queue up to give evidence to the Education Committee, rather than the teachers, the officials, the churches, the unions, the department, some bloke from round the corner and a lecturer or two.
Next thing they’ll be talking about shared education…ohh wait a minute! That’s next year’s opportunity to confuse us all about education.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Eye on the Hill

Just go away

REGULAR readers of these articles know that their purpose is to take a light-hearted look at some of the issues on the local political scene, while informing readers of some of the stories they may have missed.
The general tone is that of a wry, not cynical, observer; watching both the successful, and sometimes less than successful, endeavours of our elected representatives and officials to keep the machinations of our “boring politics” ticking along.

This week we were planning on some commentary about the motion on reducing the voting age, the cut in airport tax and how a rich man is debating about child poverty.

That changed on Thursday.

On Thursday gunmen shot and killed prison officer David Black. On Thursday gunmen carried out a planned exercise in barbarity.

With two men arrested, we cannot say much more about the actual crime. But what we can say is that such acts are the product of a mindset that offers nothing in the 21st century.

Whatever way their mindset rationalises their terror campaign, what do they hope to achieve? Better hospital services? An improved education system? More jobs? A united Ireland?

They have become so obsessed with achieving their political aims by the gun; committing atrocities that they hope will de-stabilise devolution, bring back direct rule and provoke a disproportionate response. They want to return to the dark era of the Troubles.

What else are they seeking to achieve? They have not articulated their wants and desires. They have not declared their stance on the voting age. They have not outlined their approach to combating child poverty. In fact, they say very little other than to claim responsibility for their actions; speaking through the barrel of a gun or expressing their views with explosives.

Whatever your politics, such people deserve no place in our society other than to be behind bars.
As policy wonks, we may at times, and in jest, mock those on the Hill, but we join them in condemning the actions of those that would seek to destroy the stability and peace that many have worked hard to achieve.
As has been said before, “boring is good for Northern Ireland”.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Eye on the Hill

Can I vote please?

FECKLESS, lazy and indolent! But enough about our politicians, here's some news to gladden the heart of every pupil entranced by the glitzy glamour of being part of decision-making! Sinn Féin are to propose a motion that will enable every 16-year-old yob to vote.

MLA Megan Fearon, not much older herself at the politically unheard of age of 21, is reported as saying: "Many young people are feeling disenfranchised from the electoral process even though at 16 young people are very politically aware and able to make informed choices.
Ms Fearon may be right about this - plonk an MLA in front a group of young people and the MLA usually stumbles away ready for the relative ease of a plenary session.

We are all too well aware that the glamour of voting may wear off after one vote in a primary school assembly hall with stubby pencils and baffling lists of no hopers and people who won't get elected too.

However, Ms Fearon may well have hit upon a grand idea here - let more people whose services are decided upon actually have a say over which numpty will be debating the issues in the Norn Iron Assembly! After all is said and done the grey vote is much talked about, the pink vote is not talked about, so let's have a vote for another group who can quickly align themselves to one side of the political divide or another.

 While the motion proposed by Ms Fearon appears to have some weight in terms of EU guidance - and a precedent is set to be set in Scotland - one wonders if the greybeards in the Assembly will really want more people out there voting. Come polling time it must be reassuring to wander around talking to 30-year-olds that seem awfully young to a lot of candidates. Having to talk to young people that are the same age as your grandchildren: that will be horrific.

But we see an opportunity for MLAs to engage young people through a series of inspired motions. First up will be a debate calling on the Executive to agree that FIFA13 is the best football game on the PS3. A private member's bill could be lodged requiring all households be linked to play computer games compulsorily for one hour a day. A question could be tabled to the Minister for Education: "Will the Minister reveal what his top score was on..." The possibilities are endless.


CHILDREN generally have been expected to be tested at some point in their lives: GCSE's, A Levels and even the much debated post-primary transfer test feature large in their lives.
Some testing is always good, given that it helps teacher, parents, and even the pupils themselves gauge progress. As so many children are computer literate it also seemed a good idea to have some tests on computers.

But when the computer system seemingly crashes, or gives out seemingly wrong results...such was the topic of debate this week when the Assembly’s education committee heard that testing in primary schools had gone awry, causing the Education Minister to suspend use of the computer based system until the problem had been ironed out.

Of course officials and MLAs missed out on the one way to get the mess sorted – ask a teenager to fix the problem. Fifteen minutes, a fiver and an energy drink and the problem would be solved.
But instead committee members and officials jousted with the committee chairman claiming the problem was on a par with the Ulster Bank IT failure. We bet the Ulster Bank never thought to ask a teenager either.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Here we go round and around…

Here we go round and around…

WHILE the news media and radio rantathons went round and around on all sorts of issues (you know what they are…) a few wee things may have slipped your attention; things like the economy.

Yes that little thing that puts bread on the table, milk in the fridge and a nice wee cheeky bottle of vino on your dinner table.
While hysteria and hyperbole roamed unchecked across every conceivable media outlet, the coalition government’s ministerial working group looking into giving Norn Iron tax varying powers held its last meeting and agreed to present an options paper to the PM.

The long-running saga of corporation tax is nearing its dénouement, the final act before a conclusion is brought to this saga.

Like the Skalds of ancient Scandinavian tradition, the story-tellers of political theatre have been telling the tale around corporation tax from around the last viking invasion of Strangford Lough – well it feels that way.

One must – yes you must – have a certain sympathy with the first minister and deputy first minister. They have been trying to convince the coalition and treasury of the merit of their argument for tax varying powers, as have many other members of the Executive.

Whatever the possible merits or mischances offered by lower corporation tax, Messrs Robinson and McGuinness  must feel like screaming at treasury mandarins: “Will you just make your blooming minds up!”

All going to waste

SURE what’s £3m between friends…it’s all just waste when you think about it, a waste of money turfed into a SWaMP2008 project that was meant to save money.

Yep, just as the UK government was squandering millions on a rail franchise mess, we here in l’il ole Norn Iron were not to be outdone.

SWaMP2008 was a project between Armagh, Banbridge, Cookstown, Craigavon, Dungannon, Fermanagh, Newry, Mourne and Omagh councils to develop a waste treatment initiative that would have saved ratepayers a pretty penny and potentially staved off expensive EU fines for not handling waste properly.

Instead the bidding process got caught in legal mire; with the result that SWaMP2008 has decided that it cannot risk expensive legal costs.

There are those that say that local government’s focus should be on making sure the bins are emptied properly. Of course they do much more.

Meanwhile environment minister Alex Attwood, who had hoped to see reform of local government within his lifetime, let alone the life of this assembly term, sat in the hills of the Mournes looking at the debris of his department’s national parks policy and asked of the gods of local councils: “Why me!”

Like a bridge over troubled waters…

THERE are times when we must doff our caps to local politicians. This week we tug our forelock to those in elected office, and say: “ach yer not so bad big lad!”.

We saw this week that planning approval was finally given by authorities in the south for a bridge over Carlingford Lough to connect counties Down and Louth.

With hopes high that the EU will be ready to splash the cash, we can only say on behalf of every motorist that drives between Norn Iron and its southern neighbour that it may reduce the number of cars, somewhere and somehow clogging up junctions…

And, at the same time it seems that First Minister Peter Robinson and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness have been taking a shine to Chinese food, and we’re not talking about the local takeaway near Stormont.

It emerged this week that the dynamic duo are to make two trips to China to further economic, academic and other links – the first next month with a second trip scheduled for next year.

Despite concerns in some quarters about human rights in China (they don’t even have a Human Rights Commission like our wee one!) there is no doubt that the country is the big beast of the economies outside the US.

It is churning out high quality graduates and is rapidly subsuming many traditional brands and developing more and more innovative solutions.

We are just a tiny part of a tiny island off another island, on the outer rim of Europe. If our First Minister and deputy First Minister can get the Chinese to look at putting a few quid of investment and trade our way then it will be worth the air miles.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Welfare packages sent to weary MLAs

Welfare packages sent to weary MLAs

WE in our innocence believed that the days of filibuster speeches and epochal length debates were long gone. Were we wrong! When the not so learned members of the Norn Iron Assembly got together to debate the Second Reading of the Welfare Reform Bill things got out of hand.

For nine hours they went on, and on, and on to such an extent parliamentary correspondents visibly wilted, officials were on the verge of collapse and aid packages were being passed into the chamber.

Leading the record attempts was Michael Copeland who rounded on Sinn Féin for not laying down a ‘petition of concern’ to trigger a cross-community vote, and the Minister for Social Development for slavishly following Tory ‘they’re all plebs anyway’ policy guidance.

Not that others were shy of taking a liberty with the time used to sign off this second stage. On and on they roamed around the debate, often resorting to party name calling and ‘he said, she said’ politics; where the zero sum analysis is too often designed to make sure that the opponent has zero chance of point scoring.

Let’s call the proverbial spade a spade: this second stage was always going to go through, come hell or high water, so parliamentary time was abused. Who made the call that it should be an ‘open all hours’ debate? It was the speaker.

Who abused this? MLAs of all shapes and forms… And who wasted time with pointless interventions and cat calls? MLAs of all shapes and forms.

What happens next? Well, it’s off to committee stage for consideration, a consideration stage that already has the social development committee members pencilling most of November from their diaries to go over each and every clause of the bill.
Why is it so important that Welfare Reform is done correctly? The answers are multiple, not least the level of benefit dependency in Norn Iron.

But the fact that our MLAs are too often pre-occupied with point scoring rather than substantive debate is worrying for all who want clear, cogent debate.

There is such a thing as mature democracy expressed through mature debate…We can but dream.
Now next week we can look forward to the fun and joy of the second stage of the Education Bill…

For once a good thing happened…

YES, believe it or not, a good thing was done by Government this week. Pick yourself up off the floor and digest this; the Norn Iron Executive has announced it is doing something that provides a solution.

Calm down, we’re not making this up in an hysterical over-reaction to having too many jalapenos in our lunchtime sandwich. It really, really did happen. Government did something sensible.

Two problems, one solution. Problem one: too few qualified teachers can get jobs, and cannot gain experience to apply for teaching jobs. Problem two: low levels of literacy and numeracy in areas of multiple deprivation. Solution: two year contracts for new or recently qualified teachers to deliver increased literacy and numeracy! Out-of-the box thinking from Government! Whatever next!

Well at the same time another ‘good’ announcement was made. As some of you may know there are areas of Norn Iron were the population is not the healthiest. So, what has Government gone and done? Announced that there will be health intervention workers employed to work with 1,200 families who have poor health indicators and live in deprived areas.

Where will this all end? Will common sense break out and we can all decide to get along and be friends? Will economic stimuli be directed from the bottom up as well as top down?

Unfortunately this, very welcome initiative is about treating the symptom not the cause. Families whose children have poor literacy or numeracy outcomes are likely to descend from a generation or two of poor literacy and numeracy, and in all likelihood poor employment records.

Families with poor health outcomes often have other factors affecting those outcomes, whether through housing or ongoing, long term health issues.

What is common is the need to tackle the systemic situation that sees poor educational and health indicators grouped around particular wards. Rather than taking health, education, employment etc. as single issues, an examination of the overall situation would yield better results and therefore better ways forward. But that would require us to imagine, at least for a short moment, that our ministers and departments could think outside their silos…

In the meantime the ‘good’ thing announced by Messers Robinson and McGuinness has to be welcomed as a good start.

Open Letter to Mr Poots

DEAR Mr Poots, we respectfully ask you to close our local hospital as soon as possible, preferably within the next week. We do not wish to have our local constituency MLAs be made hypocrites of, not that this is usually a problem.

Our local constituency MLAs generally agree with everything you say about saving money and spending it on better outcomes and more care in the community.

However, as interest groups and the NIMBYs gather it is as sure as an expense claim by an MLA that our elected representatives will find a thousand ways to argue why their local hospital has to stay open.

Therefore we suggest that the consultation period on Transforming Your Care be reduced to one week, and closure plans for superfluous hospitals and A&E departments begins forthwith.

However, as to closing the nursing homes, we’ll fight ya tooth and nail! You’re not closing our local nursing home – we might need it sooner rather than late after listening to the MLAs wittering away about this.

Abortion…a modern day quagmire

ONE has to admire former PUP leader Dawn Purvis for taking on the programme director job with the Marie Stopes Clinic, while it may be an easier job than leading a party associated with certain paramilitary groups it is one fraught with issues.

Keeping within the very, very narrow legal definition of abortion in Norn Iron when guidance from the DHSSPS is so delayed will be one thing. Keeping the unholy alliance of SDLP, TUV and DUP from collapsing in collective apoplexy will be another.

And deciding when there are just enough protestors to justify extra publicity will be another.

We are not going to take a stance on whether we are pro choice or pro life or anti abortion or anti women. Frankly we can do without the hate mail.

What we will say (tentatively) is that it is seemingly impossible in Norn iron to have a debate about any issue without reference to the King James Version of the Bible…

We’re now going to have a good read at the KJV and find out where it mentions abortion and what it means by the bitter water (look it up…)

Or on the other hand we may just retire to mop our brows…

Friday, 7 September 2012

Eye on the Hill

Oh dearie dearie me
WELL here we are at the end of the summer, a summer of rain, sodden streets, wet fields and what do you know but we have used all the excess water to fill up the water cannons and soak the streets and gathered masses of unruly yobs some more. The PSNI must have decided that all the water had to be used some way.
Or was it the petrol bombs they were trying to extinguish...
What a wonderful sight, rioting returning to Belfast's streets for the traditional three-day period. It's just like Ardoyne in July: rioters ready, on you marks and you have 72 hours to create chaos, and then your time is up.

But who fired the starting pistol? Was it a bunch of idiots in band uniforms? Was it the marchers who decided to follow on? Was it the groups determined to take offence? Was it the politicians of all hues who think that once they let their jaws spring open yobs would take a hint even when one was not explicitly given?
Ahh! There's the rub. The political leaders. There now tends to be an inclination to make sure that leadership gets thrown to the side until the proverbial is flying from the fan, splattering the reputation of Norn Iron.
If we were major investors would we take the risk? If we were entrepreneurs would we even consider that 99% of the population were going about their business but avoiding the flash point? No, we'd be off like rabbits at the sound of the farmer's gun to the safety of an area where our base would not be portrayed as some pseudo-war zone.
Will the Norn Iron Executive have the will to get on the streets and work their over-inflated behinds rather than their over-inflated egos?
The Executive, for all its failings has done so much right, stumbling through their mini-crises and even managing to pass the odd bit of legislation. Many will not have agreed with what they have done, but at least they have 'done' something.

With another major parade just around the corner, if you'll excuse the pun, it is now necessary for the Norn Iron Executive to get out from behind the behind doors meetings and the staged press conferences and get working with the aggrieved, the disillusioned and the disenchanted; and not just think that you can throw money and platitudes at the problem.

Leadership and hard work can, and will, resolve the issues. Posturing will not. We look forward to the soft sound of sleeves being rolled up and the quiet, calm work that can solve problems, not make them worse.

That’s right, rights are all up the left

MORE than 14 years since first conceived in the heady, hallucinogenic airs that wafted around the Good Friday Agreement, the Norn Iron Bill of Rights is no nearer to resting at ease on the statute books.
And the Norn Iron Human Rights Commission -  the body given the job to bring about said Bill of Rights knows where to place the blame – those dreaded and dastardly ‘g’ men; the be-suited gents [Editor’s note: ‘And ladies!’] of government.

Four years ago the Human Rights Commission presented its recommendations for a Bill of Rights to the government at Westminster, where it has not exactly been top of the government’s reading pile.
After the various machinations since 1998, the chances of the Bill of Rights receiving an enthusiastic response have been not exactly great. Whether it be unionist intransigence, nationalist obduracy , or just plain awkwardness, the Bill has languished in the ‘to do’ pile for quite some time, but not as long as the 10 years it took to get recommendations to government.

And here is where we think the Human Rights Commission missed a trick: they had no specific constituency to appeal to. Not children, not pensioner, not victims – just sort of everyone.
Had they any sense they would have said this week: “The Bill of Rights will establish in law the right to parade, the right to object to parades and the right to up to, but not including, three full days of rioting.”
It would have been gained the necessary political support quicker than a caller to The Nolan Show can express indignation about something or another that they think they are indignant about.

Welcome Theresa!

AS Cabinet re-shuffles go, it was not the most inspiring or drastic, but we were all delighted to see the former Transport Minister and Euro-Sceptic Theresa Villiers toddle across the North Channel to become Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
Ms Villiers may see this as only a slight promotion, but she may also see it as a chance to shine at a time when there is a need for leadership in Northern Ireland.
Or, as she looked at TV news bulletins of riots on the streets she may just have said…well as responsible columnists we would never repeat such language…

Ms Villiers is a former barrister and was an MEP before becoming MP for Chipping Barnet. Quite how she’ll be welcomed by Executive parties remains to be seen. Owen Paterson, for all his good intentions and congeniality did have, at times, a tendency to open his mouth to change feet. Thought by many to be a ‘good’ Secretary of State, outstanding matters had begun to pile up on his desk.

Like Corporation Tax varying powers.

Ms Villiers’ position on Corporation Tax reductions may or may not be sympathetic, but as with Mr Paterson her hands will be tied by the Treasury. Whether her legal brain can be applied to this Gordian Knot remains to be seen, but as a former Transport Minister perhaps she can advise us all on how to avoid the latest roadwork’s.
By her side will be ex-British army man Mike Penning as a Minister in the Norn Iron Office. Mr Penning served in the Grenadier Guards, including time in Northern Ireland. Whether patrolling in a Land Rover or time in barracks will give him any real insight remains to be seen.

But as a former political journalist he may be able to correct local hacks grammar.
While both are no doubt capable MPs, and one hopes also capable ministers, we do wonder why anyone would want to be at the NIO? And how many said ‘no’ before Ms Villiers agreed.
Of course, it is the chance to shine? Owen Paterson may be grateful to be promoted to DEFRA as secretary of State but what other incentive is there.

One suspects that there is an unwritten code for all Secretary of States for Norn Iron.  It probably reads: “Keep those lunatics from running over to London whingeing”.