Inner-city majority Protestant areas seeing vast improvements

You didn’t read that headline wrong! Despite the lack of political leadership, the difficulties in the labour market and the constant media negativity, the quality of life is markedly improving in inner-city areas, not least those with a Protestant majority.

A few statistics from the Village and Sandy Row area:

  • teenage pregnancy is now barely a quarter of the rate it was just seven years ago, at under 5%;
  • number of school leavers with five good GCSE grades has nearly doubled in that same period, to 38.5%;
  • the number of burglaries has halved since 2003;
  • the number of children achieving Key Stage 2 in mathematics has more than doubled to two-thirds;
  • the percentage of working age residents with no qualifications fell from more than half in 2001 to under a third in 2013.

This is credit to community workers, teachers, outreach organisations and most of all to the people themselves.

Of course, there are many areas to work on. But the constant hail of negativity in reporting about these areas is utterly at odds with the reality in many of these areas, and with the vast array of positive trends ongoing in them.


Xenophobic posters are economically illiterate

There was another media storm last week over a series of outrageously xenophobic posters which appeared in parts of Belfast concerning “local jobs”.

These posters are not remotely reflective of the people resident in the areas where they appeared – a point the media and politicians did not make sufficiently clear perhaps, but we’ll come to that tomorrow!

There were many reasons for concern with the posters, but one prominent one which was not at all covered was that they were simply economically illiterate.

For example, it is true that many (two thirds, probably) of the people working on the repair of the Brazilian oil rig at Harland and Wolff are from outside Northern Ireland (although mainly from inside the UK, for what that may be worth). This is because it is a job which requires highly specific skills. Perhaps there is a skills issue there, but then it would be foolish to invest in skilling up the number of people required to do very specialised jobs within Northern Ireland alone, because such projects come along so rarely that people with those skills (but no others) would spend most of their time out of work.

What has happened, however, is that people have come into Northern Ireland, and they have:

  • used up residential accommodation which was unused previously or brought income into local B&Bs which otherwise wouldn’t have had any at this time of year;
  • propped up local shops for their vital groceries;
  • propped up the local hospitality sector during their leisure time; and
  • perhaps even brought friends and family over to visit (and spend money) who otherwise would never have thought to come here.

It doesn’t actually matter where in the world they have come from, the net effect of bringing the project to Belfast and bringing specifically skilled people in to complete it (alongside a fair number of local workers) is hugely positive in an array of local sectors from tourism to leisure.

That is, of course, to leave aside the fact that people from Northern Ireland benefit from exactly the same exchange. Many friends of mine in the construction trade have spent a significant period of the last two years building homes in Scotland. They have now returned having maintained some income, continued to practise their skills, and able to contribute to any upturn which may occur here. Do the UKIP fruitcakes think that was a bad thing?!

Only an idiot would put up a poster denying us such a welcome economic boost, both in terms of people bringing skills into our economy and our own people being able to maintain an income elsewhere during economic downturns. But it’s also worth remembering it only takes one (unskilled) idiot to glue up a poster.

“Call Centre” jobs are positive, not negative

It so happens a good friend who works at Concentrix had tipped me off about the 1000 new jobs announcement at the very moment I wrote this, but it rather demonstrated my point! Twice in the last few months an announcement of 1000 new jobs for Belfast has come; such announcements are almost unknown in comparable cities in England outside London and the Home Counties.

There is a tendency to “chide” call centre jobs. That tendency is an example of the negativity I speak of. Actually, Call Centres are highly pressurised environment; teamwork is essential; IT skills are necessary; managers are consequently comparatively well paid; and in many cases language skills are also necessary (with an added salary bonus there too).

Furthermore, they may be below average salary level but they offer a clear skills progression route particularly to people starting out in work. In an era where “starter jobs” such as check-out attendant are in dramatic decline, we have to be forceful to fill the gap. These are 1000 jobs which had to go somewhere. They could easily have gone somewhere else – to Cardiff, or Newcastle, or Bristol. They didn’t, they came here. We have to compete for such jobs to create that skills progression route, and compete successfully. In this case and others, we have managed that.

All of this is not to mention that Concentrix derives from Owen Lamont’s “GEM” firm, so is to a degree a story of local entrepreneurial success as well.

It’s all good! So let’s say so!

What is “Single Transferable Vote”?

I’ll let you all into a secret. I hate Single Transferable Vote. It is too complex, and the outcomes can be too freakish. Furthermore, contrary to widespread belief, it is not proportional. But it’s what we have – so how does it actually work?

The basic principle is this: votes are transferable among candidates, and they continue to be transferred among candidates until the required number of candidates have the number of votes they require (known as the “quota”) to be sure they cannot be overtaken.

Let us start with the most straightforward version: if we are electing one candidate, that candidate needs a 50% vote share plus one vote. Thus the “quota” that candidate needs is half of all the votes cast, plus one (actually, to be specific, rounded up to the nearest integer) - or, mathematically V/(C+1)+1 where V is the number of valid votes cast and C is the number of candidates to be elected. Thus, if 1000 votes are cast, the “quota” required to be elected is 501 – that is, 1000/(1+1)+1.

If there are three candidates, let us say that Candidate A scores 200, Candidate B scores 250, and Candidate C scores 550. Candidate C is over the quota and is elected. Easy!

Let us say, however, that Candidate A scores 200, Candidate B scores 350, and Candidate C scores 450. Here, no candidate has reached 501. The lowest candidate (Candidate A) is eliminated, and their votes transferred to the next preference still left in the race. Let us say that the 200 votes are split evenly; Candidate B would now have 450, and Candidate C 550, thus Candidate C is elected.

Let us say, then, that Candidate A scores 200, Candidate B 350 and Candidate C 450. However, only 125 of Candidate A’s votes were marked with a further preference, all for Candidate B. Thus Candidate B has 475 and Candidate C 450. No candidate has reached the quota. In this case, there being no remaining eliminations, the lead candidate (Candidate B) is deemed elected.

Now then, let us move on to a slightly more complex version: if we are to elect three candidates from the same votes, the formula remains V/(C+1)+1 but now that means 1000/(3+1)+1=251. This is a bit more complex. Let us say there are seven candidates with first preference votes cast as follows: Candidate A 251, Candidate B 249, Candidate C 120, Candidate D 110, Candidate E 100, Candidate F 90 and Candidate G 80.

Candidate A is elected having reached the quota precisely. However all others, including Candidate B, are in fact short of the quota. Candidate G would be eliminated, and those votes transferred, and so on, until three candidates had reached 251 (or there was only one remaining).

However, let’s say – and this is where it gets tricky – the outcome is this: Candidate A 360, Candidate B 140, and the rest as above.

Here, Candidate A has not only reached quota but in fact has done so with 109 votes to spare. It would be most unfair to penalise Candidate A for having done so well by leaving those 109 votes wasted, particularly if one or some of the remaining candidates were from the same party. So what happens, before any eliminations (unless it can make no difference) is that Candidate A’s “surplus” is transferred. How this is done varies – in some locations, the authorities would simply lift 100 votes from the candidate’s pile and transfer them according to their next preference; in Northern Ireland, however, all the original 360 votes would be reanalysed, and transferred at a fraction of a vote to make the overall total transferred 109. So, for example, if 36 of the 360 (i.e. 10%) had Candidate B as the next preference, Candidate B would receive 10% of 109 votes – i.e. 10.90 votes (it is done to two decimal points).

This process then continues – surpluses first if they can make a difference, and then eliminations – until three candidates have reached the quota or only three are left standing, whichever comes first.

Clear? Hmmm…

Clearer, I hope!

Constant negativity will get other Progressives nowhere

My piece two days ago on how Northern Ireland leads the way on skills was just one of many demonstrating how things are improving dramatically here, despite the constant (and frankly understandable) negativity which surrounds the political process.

Northern Ireland also leads the way in dementia diagnosis, falling road fatalities, cancer survival, diabetes rates, top-end A-level results, disabled winter sport and the screen industries – to name but a few. Who would have dreamt, a decade or so ago, that the Giro d’Italia would start in Belfast, that Belfast would be one of the Top Five Trip Advisor destinations, and that Northern Ireland would be the setting of the most successful television series in the world?

This is why those Progressives (my term: “moderate” doesn’t quite cover it) who have demanded “positive politics” are justified and wise; and why it is a grave error by other would-be Progressive Leaders to be so constantly negative about Northern Ireland and its administration. Sure, we should pick out when things go wrong; sure, we should demand high standards; sure, the failure to agree on symbols and such like is embarrassing. But here’s the thing: it’s a hell of a lot better than the alternative!

In 1972, 460 people were murdered in Northern Ireland and a further 370 killed in road crashes. Now, we average 20 murders and 55 road fatalities each year.

In 1972, 63 more people left Northern Ireland each day than arrived here. This bears repeating given the current headlines: that figure is now 2! That’s not a misprint.

In 1972, Northern Ireland was on the verge of civil war – terror lurked around urban street corners, murderers and bombers were on the rampage, and even some of the security forces were out of control. In 2014, we move about freely in the safest part of the UK with the most accountable police service.

The alternative to what we have in 2014 is what we had in 1972. I know which I prefer!

If Progressives are to have a role in leading Northern Ireland, it will be through positivity not negativity. That former will bring voters out to secure the gains we have made and push for some more; the latter will merely drive them away from the polling stations and into a state of permanent cynicism. Again, I know which I prefer – and I know which is better for Northern Ireland. So let’s join those who suggest we should get positive about politics – and never forget that the alternative to it is dark, grotesque, and must be confined to our past forever.

Unacceptable for victims to bear entire burden

As one BBC NI journalist noted, there was something strangely curious about a BBC Spotlight programme on IRA gunrunning during the “peace” process occurring alongside the State dinner at Windsor where an IRA Commander supped with the Queen.

Three people – two police officers and one with alleged RIRA links – were plainly murdered with the guns so run, post-ceasefire. Their families lack justice, nor even the truth, about what happened.

It is one thing for them to be asked to bear the burden of constructive ambiguity, but there comes a time when the ambiguity becomes destructive. Without at least truth there is no justice, and without justice there can be no true peace. We need be in no doubt that many communities in Northern Ireland continue to “self-police”; the law is dished out by self-appointed men and not by the courts. The NIO, as it always has done, turns a convenient blind eye to it.

There must be at least some semblance of justice – both past and present – or we can forget about the future. Most of all, we cannot allow another generation to grow up thinking terrorists are cool and victims are a nuisance.

This is not a sham peace – it is real. But it is a sham democracy. Not because there is no “opposition” or such, but because there is no justice – at least not one equally and fairly applied. And without real democracy, peace can only ever be temporary.

Northern Ireland leads the way on skills

I noted last week the usual vague Twitter rantings from the usual vague Twitter suspects about how good things are good, bad things are bad, and we need to “invest in skills” and stuff.

Here’s the good news – we already are. Of course, when you do invest in skills, the results are not seen overnight – it may take years, decades even. But yet again, we in Northern Ireland should stop talking outselves down. There can be no question that Northern Ireland is doing all the right things in this area.

Here are a few:

  • tuition fees are frozen maximising access to higher education (we already have the highest social mobility rates in the UK);
  • we have added 1350 additional Undergraduate places, all in STEM subjects;
  • next year, we will have delivered a 60% increase in relevant PhD places over a four-year period, all in economically relevant subjects;
  • we have focused not just on academic places, but also on wage subsidies for younger people in work (as well as reviews of Apprenticeships and Youth Training Schemes);
  • we have trained 8000 people in customer care in tourism and hospitality;
  • we are assuring the delivery of skilled workers for inward investors via bespoke training programmes.

These are impressive reforms which will inevitably work through into a vastly improved economy prepared to create wealth (and thus jobs) by focusing on the most relevant areas – an economy which works well both for indigenous businesses and inward investors.

One more thing for those vague ramblers on Twitter – you can only deliver such things if you’re in government

Dealing with the Irish Language in NI

The Irish Language is in that unfortunate space in Northern Ireland where reactions to it are emotional – often flavoured by “community background” – rather than rational. Cases around it are made to suit the existing narrative rather than on a genuinely reasoned basis; and anyone stepping outside the “expected norm” of their own “side” (most obviously the East Belfast Mission at Skainos) is castigated mercilessly (but often unreasonably) by that “side”.

It is worth noting that this is rarely done by stating outright untruths, but rarely by emphasising the truths which suit our own narrative. Thus the fact few speak it as a native language in Northern Ireland can lead to it being easily dismissed as “dead” (even though it is all around us); or the fact that Presbyterians were central to its revival in the late 19th century can be hailed as “proof of an inherent cross-community interest” (even though this has not been meaningfully apparent for over a century). As too often in Northern Ireland, we find facts being made to suit a case, not a case being made to suit the facts!

For all that, there are actually two core ways of looking at the development of the Irish Language (and the government’s/tax payer’s role in it). It is worth looking at them in the (no doubt vain) hope of a rational compromise.

Firstly, the argument goes that the Irish Language is unique to the island of Ireland; that if we don’t take action to protect it we’ll lose it (because only we can save it); and that it is all around us (not least in place names) and part of all of us (regardless of background). On those grounds, we in Northern Ireland should play a full and comprehensive role in its development (and, particularly relevantly right now, we should certainly not be deprived of that role by funding for development organisations being shifted in its entirety to Dublin and the Gaeltacht).

Secondly, the argument goes that the Irish Language is a minority community interest, effectively a hobby; that it is not the government’s (tax payer’s) role to fund hobbies; and that if people want to develop it that is well and good, but they may do so in their own time at their own expense because public money is needed for schools and hospitals. On those grounds, it is dubious whether there should even be a “Department of Culture”, English should be the sole language of administration at all times (not least because it’s cheaper that way), and if anything Polish should be the second language as it has more native speakers.

At a purely rational level, I can absolutely see both of those arguments. However, the issue then becomes consistency. Frankly (and almost crudely), if you take the first argument you have to deliver a meaningful cross-community basis to all Irish Language activity (which means getting out of “silos” such as using the language to “mark Republican areas”, and removing some of the more fanciful notions about the language such as its alleged “ancientness”); if you take the second argument to its logical conclusion, the Orange Order should pay for its own marches (including security arrangements, notifying residents of road closures, post-parade clean-up and so on).

I do tend, personally, towards the first of the above (I personally am willing to pay something towards protection of a language on the grounds of cultural value even if I don’t speak it); but I respect those who tend towards the latter – as long as we are all consistent! Therefore, it would be helpful at least if we could shift the debate on to more rational ground, and then recognise the logical conclusions on other aspects of culture of the position we choose to take.

North of England also holds key to future of UK

I agreed with one regular reader recently that it is northern England, not northern Britain or Northern Ireland, which holds the biggest key to the future of the UK.

The simple reason for this is that it is in fact the north of England – not Scotland or Northern Ireland – which has really borne the brunt of the recent economic calamity, having already been on a downward curve compared to the rest of the UK for most of the past century.

One Labour MP is also bringing forward a complaint to Parliament about European money being spent in Scotland and Northern Ireland which, on the basis of GDP/capita, should be spent in poorer northern English cities. Indeed, Liverpool and Sheffield have combined to consider legal action on the point. The northern English will be polite no more!

In the industrial era, the north of England was among the most prosperous places on the planet – for much the same reason that Belfast was. It made the linen, grew the food and built the ships that the world wanted. Through its use of canals and its invention of rail, alongside significant medical breakthroughs (and the game of football, for that matter), it was also the hub of global innovation. “Manchester United” and “Liverpool” remain the world’s two most famous football clubs precisely because people brought to growing urban areas at the height of industrialisation used football as a means of coming together and growing their new local identity.

The north of England was, of course, interdependent with (the west of) Scotland and (the north of) Ireland at that time. People moved between them widely. Even now, Scottish and northern English accents are heard at Harland and Wolff, though now building a few wind turbines rather than a mass of huge ships. Likewise, Irish communities in Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle continue to shape those cities – even now 1 person in around 130 in those cities, not that few if you imagine a heaving mass at a local shopping mall, identifies as “Northern Irish”; even more notably 1 in 30 in Northern Ireland identifies as “English”, with a majority probably from the north.

Yet the north of England’s economic and political decline has surely been even more marked. While Scotland gets away with free personal care and Northern Ireland gets away with rates and no water charges, households in the north of England have to scrape enough to pay for the lot. There is no oil dividend; as noted above, there are no peace funds. They gained the least during the Thatcher boom as many of the old industries collapsed (sometimes forcibly); yet they suffered most when the Great Recession hit.

To top it all, the northern English can do nothing about it. Where the Scots and Northern Irish have power in their own hands – with multitudes of government and third sector jobs going with it – the northern English lose out again. Liverpool may be closer economically, culturally (and even geographically depending on how you travel) to Belfast or Glasgow, it is governed directly from London. No Home Rule there!

I have to laugh, frankly, at Scots who claim they are second-class citizens in the UK. Put simply, devolution and other political developments have clearly seen Scotland and Northern Ireland advantaged and the north of England indisputably disadvantaged – both politically and economically. This is not something which will (or should) be allowed to go on indefinitely. Indeed, with all the focus on Holyrood and Stormont, it could just be that the very future of the Union is determined ultimately in the north of England – and justifiably so.

“No” campaign should agree to devolve all to Scotland that is devolved to NI

Welfare, air duty, employment law, aspects of equality policy, the Civil Service… I wouldn’t imagine many people know what connects those areas of policy. They are in fact the most prominent things, along with some other minor areas, which are devolved to Northern Ireland but not to Scotland.

In areas such as employment and equality, there are obvious historical reasons for this; with air duty, there is an obvious geographical one; with welfare and the Civil Service, it is more a historical quirk.

Nevertheless, I see no reason whatsoever they should not be devolved to Scotland immediately after September’s referendum (and Scotland’s income tax variation rights also transferred to Northern Ireland).

I have long argued that the obvious distinction between federations/unions with no real separatist movements (United States, Germany) and those on the verge of break-up (UK, Spain) is that the former have symmetrical devolution of power whereas the latter are a-symmetrical. This may seem counter-intuitive, but for a union to work all parts of it have to feel they are being treated fairly – not just the (culturally/historically) distinct part!

Bavaria is a markedly distinct part of Germany, historically and culturally. Likewise Texas or Hawaii in the United States. Yet they have the same powers as everywhere else – and are content with that.

The UK (and actually also Spain) must swiftly learn the same lesson. The “No” campaign should make that straightforward offer, while adding the potential for the devolution of financial powers also exists; this would have the added benefit of removing part of Alex Salmond’s whole argument, as Scotland would then have the power not to implement the “Bedroom Tax” and such like even in the event of a “no” vote. Indeed, he would even be presented with the problem of running his own Civil Service pensions schemes…


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