Time for NI numberplates to come into line with UK?

Another nerdy one…

UK-style numberplate for Northern Ireland

UK-style numberplates for Northern Ireland?

Over a century ago the UK (then consisting of the whole of Great Britain and Ireland) introduced vehicle registration plates. They contained one or two letters to mark the city or county of registration, and a number of up to four digits. In England and Wales, the letter(s) were allocated in order according to the size of the city or county – London was A, Lancashire was and so on, through to Rutland. However, the letters and were reserved for Scotland; and and for Ireland. In Ireland, plates were allocated in alphabetical order by county first and then city (IA Antrim, IB Armagh, IC Carlow and so on through to VI Waterford and so on). When they ran out, each city or county simply chose a new combination; when these ran out, plates were reversed (i.e. UI 9999 was followed by 1 UI); subsequently, when that ran out, an initial letter was added (thus AUI 1).

Northern Ireland is the only part of the British Isles which has retained the original system – now three letters (the initial serial letter plus the two-letter county/city code which usually ends in -Z) and four digits. The Republic of Ireland had a similar system until 1987 (though with only three digits and a code usually starting Z-); Great Britain had a similar system but with three digits and an additional letter to mark the year of registration (subsequently half-year) until 2001.

The Republic of Ireland changed to a more “European” style system, with two digits (subsequently three) to mark the year (subsequently half-year), a one or two-letter code to mark city or county, and then a serial number of up to six numbers. Great Britain changed to a two-letter code for the “Registration Office” (county or collection of counties), two digits to mark the half-year, and then three serial letters.

Northern Ireland had retained a distinct system largely because it retained a distinct office – with vehicles registered in Coleraine as opposed to Swansea for the rest of the UK. However, the Coleraine functions have now transferred to Swansea; additionally, the current system is about to run out – the nominally “Derry City” plates have now reached “VUI” with no natural next code. It would be possible to get around this, either by introducing a code previously unused (the way “Fermanagh” used “-IG“), or by reversing (i.e. starting again with “1001 AUI” – the four digits are now always used); but is it worth it, given vehicle registration is now pan-UK anyway?

It may be time, therefore, for Northern Ireland simply to come into line with the rest of the UK – the initial letter I- has even been reserved for this (as per the plate above).

Conceivably Northern Ireland’s registration offices could still be left intact (Ballymena for Co Antrim IA-IC; Downpatrick for Co Down ID-IE; Enniskillen for Co Fermanagh IF; Derry City IG-IH; Coleraine itself IJ-IK; Armagh IP-IR; Omagh for Co Tyrone IS-IT; and Belfast IU-IZ with space potentially for Lisburn IL and Newry IN). Thus, a vehicle registered in Enniskillen in March 2015 would be something like IE15 XYZ.

For all the obvious administrative advantages, the main advantage of this is that Northern Ireland’s plates would come into line with both Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland in indicating clearly the half-year of manufacture – which also helps with memorising plates.

It’s all about the big issues, eh?!

People should be castigated for being a-political, not praised

As part of the ongoing and growing disillusion with “politics”, I saw someone note the other day that people should “leave religion and politics at the door” when entering their home; in the context, clearly, that this statement was to be seen as enlightened.

It’s scandalous.

Each and every one of us lives in a complex society made up of people with diverse and often competing interests, priorities and objectives.

There are two ways you can deal with this inevitable complexity. You can do it with violence, or you can do it with politics. After what we went through from 1969 to 1998, it should be obvious to each and every man, woman and child in Northern Ireland which is preferable.

And here’s the thing: you don’t get to opt out!

When you wake up in your home (owned, mortgaged or rented), politics has determined that it is your home and how. When you walk out of the door, politics has decided what infrastructure you can use and how, and what the terms are for any form of transport you choose (or, in practice, can’t choose because politics has so decided). When you enter any workplace – not just your own, but any office, shop, school, office, even roadwork zone – politics has decided the terms upon which you may enter, the rights of those working there, the duties of those providing or taking the service, and so on. There’s no “opt out” – as soon as you interact (and often even when you don’t), politics dictates the terms (and rightly so, given the alternative).

It may be that you can influence some of this politics directly; sometimes informally, say through discussions with other parents about the local school and the school gate; sometimes more formally by getting yourself on to the local Parent and Teachers Association or Police and Community Safety Partnership or Road Safety Committee; perhaps even by volunteering on to the Board of the Local Enterprise Agency. Again, it is not reasonable to opt out here – really everyone should endeavour to fulfil one of these “direct” roles at least.

Some of it, inevitably, you are going to need to influence indirectly by choosing those who manage your local Council, determine regional policy, and make the laws of your jurisdiction (who will in turn select those who ensure it is enforced). You do this by voting at elections – and campaigning, or even standing yourself. Again, there’s no opt out – if you don’t choose, you allow other people to choose for you (an act not of generosity but, frankly, of laziness – voting is not complex!)

Those who claim to opt out of politics are actually suggesting they are entitled to opt out of society. That is the scandal here. People live in homes whose ownership is determined and protected through politics, travel on roads built or railways commissioned through politics, work or use services with rights supported and responsibilities placed through politics, and then claim that people should “leave their politics at the door”?!

Suddenly that enlightened view looks entirely selfish, as if somehow opting out of politics allows us to opt out of our responsibilities as a citizen to participate in society because there are some aspects of it that don’t suit us. But in society you can’t just take your ball and go home. On the contrary, it is your responsibility to seek to shape it, to  influence it, to assist it – and you do this, directly or indirectly, through politics.

Are you fed up with politics? Or is it really that you fed up with compromise in an ever more complex society which increasingly demands it? As for politicians, they are a direct reflection of those who elect them – if you don’t like them, change them!

But be sure of one thing – you don’t get to opt out!

UK needs to understand you can support government without coalition

The UK is a peculiar place. On one hand, as the centre of the World’s largest empire and still a global influencer and trade centre (41% of foreign currency trading globally takes place in the UK, versus 19% in the US), it is a hugely international and global hub; on the other hand, it can be quite unbelievably insular. Discussion of a potential Coalition Government after May’s General Election falls firmly into the latter category – the UK seems to have no idea what happens when no single party has an overall majority in Parliament, even though this is almost universally the case elsewhere in Europe (and in devolved legislatures within the UK itself).

Let us firstly be clear about what happens. The UK’s system is that the Prime Minister is appointed until he resigns (although he is compelled to do so if he cannot pass a Budget or loses a Vote of No Confidence in the House of Commons). Thus, after a General Election, the incumbent Prime Minister gets first attempt at forming a Government which can command a majority in the House of Commons – in other words, one which will not lose a Vote of No Confidence.

There are all kinds of ways he could achieve this. He can of course, as in 2010, offer a full coalition with another party. However, remember he only has to ensure he can pass a Budget; he does not have to form a Government representing a majority of MPs – so he can negotiate deals on specific policies, budget allocations or even appointments with other parties in return for their support (or even an abstention providing him with a majority) on Confidence Votes and the Budget (this is known as “an arrangement on Confidence and Supply”). In the recent Swedish election a four-party “left” coalition won more seats than a three-party “right” coalition even though both were short of a majority of seats (a populist party held the balance); via a series of deals and understanding a new government was formed consisting not only of Ministers only from the minority “left” coalition, but actually from only two of the four parties in that coalition.

For example, let us say the next UK General Election ends up with the Conservatives and Labour on around 275 seats each – 50 or so short of a majority. In such an event, we may have a Nationalist/Green bloc (led by the SNP) on conceivably 40-45 seats, the Liberal Democrats on around 30-35 seats, and a Populist bloc (UKIP/DUP) on around 20. No single bloc gets either side to a majority of seats, so a deal has to be done.

To be clear, the incumbent Prime Minister gets first go. Yet there is no way, realistically, a Conservative Leader could build a Coalition representing the majority of MPs in this circumstance. However, he could offer wide-ranging powers and extra allocations to Scotland and Wales in return for “support on Confidence and Supply”, and perhaps simply threaten UKIP there’ll be no EU referendum or “English Votes on English Issues”  unless its MPs abstain in such circumstances.

This does not stop the Opposition negotiating, of course. It could offer no “English votes for English issues” to the SNP in return for an abstention on “Confidence and Supply” and then offer to form a Coalition with the Liberal Democrats which would lack an overall majority but would have one to pass a Budget with SNP abstentions. Alternatively, it could offer a highly favourable Budget to the SNP (and Scotland and Wales in general) in return for Nationalist support on “Confidence and Supply”, and then an EU Referendum to UKIP in return for its abstentions.

Of course, the smaller parties or blocs could make their demands. These may be obvious (referendums or budgets) or less obvious (a deal conditional on a bigger party nominating a different Prime Minister, for example).

All of this means that some of the daft talk we see – for example of the SNP in a Coalition Government at UK level – shows no awareness of politics at its most basic and, arguably, most exciting.

The case for revenue raising

When they are discussing curry and yoghurt, they are best ignored. However, when they are discussing finance and the economy, they are worth listening to. The position of the DUP is consistent and fairly standard “centre right”.

The key, therefore, is that any response to the DUP’s position has to be consistent and fairly standard. The only party which mustered that last week was the Alliance Party.

It is not difficult to see where the Finance Minister is coming from when he suggests that, as the effects of the Great Recession begin to bite through the long-delayed public spending reductions we should long since have experienced and planned for, the last thing you want to do is increase pressure on households by (in effect) raising taxes. That is a legitimate viewpoint. However, the one thing I take issue with is that by not raising taxes somehow the pain is removed. There is pain either way, and we need to be very clear about that.

The case for revenue raising is essentially that, without it, all the pain of balancing the budget is transferred to public spending reductions. This has just as direct a knock-on to household income, potentially, as raising taxes. This is not just in service reductions or cuts; there are consultants who operate with the public sector; members of public bodies; and of course those in the public sector who have to contemplate redundancy (after all, if “voluntary redundancy” doesn’t get you all the way to where you need to be, “compulsory” will have to follow).

The case for raising revenue (taxes) is threefold. Firstly, it enables a more graduated reduction in public spending, and thus more thought into how it should be reduced rather than just crude budget cuts. Secondly, it enables a fairer system of payment – for example, the regional rate (effectively a property tax) may be seen as a perfectly reasonable wealth tax. Thirdly, it will in fact make the public more aware of what money they are handing over – and thus more demanding of the very efficiency the public sector needs to deliver as budgets are reduced.

To be clear, Departmental Expenditure Limits for non-capital spending are now at roughly £10b per annum – this had reached £10.8b but for a variety of reasons (including breaching parity and hitting capital borrowing limits necessitating transfers of funds elsewhere) the £800m hit now has to be taken all at once:

  • raising the Regional Rate by 19% (as once done under Direct Rule) would raise about £115m, and removing Rates Cap another £10 million;
  • introducing water charges with few exemptions would raise about £250m;
  • re-introducing Prescription Charges as were would raise about £10m, or without exemptions about £30m;
  • introducing motorway tolls at Fortwilliam, Dunsilly and Blaris as in the Republic would raise about £50m (with the additional benefit that it would be easier to make the case to the European Investment Bank for new roads spending); and
  • raising the age of free travel from 60-65 would raise about £10m;
  • introducing nominal charges for currently free summer schemes and similar programmes, and perhaps even bin charges and Fire callout fees as in the Republic could raise another few tens of million.

It won’t get us even half way to covering the shortfall, realistically, because we won’t do all of it and, even if we did, we would phase some of it in. However, there is a debate to be had in the coming weeks. Let us have it reasonably, based on the realities of the situation we face.

Premier League, Government Finance and the Motivation to Innovate

This excellent article over on ESPN offers an explanation of the decline in performance of Premier League teams and a comparison to the downfall of Serie A 15 years ago.

Put simply, the story goes like this. Italy’s senior football league, ‘Serie A’, emerged as the strongest in Europe in the late 1980s and remained so through to the late 1990s. Because it was the strongest league, it attracted the strongest players, and was thus home to the richest owners, and also the richest TV deals, and so became without question the richest league. How on earth, therefore, could this ongoing spiral of signing ever better players with ever more money be brought to an end? When the clubs forgot to innovate, and other clubs in other countries did. Spurred on by better nutrition and better tactics, England’s ‘Premier League’ overhauled ‘Serie A’ as the richest and best league by the mid-2000s. The cycle has repeated itself, and the Premier League is now on the downward curve familiar to most Italian football fans.

Spain’s ‘La Liga’, with slightly less money, has already taken over from the Premier League as the leading league in terms of continental performance; Germany’s ‘Bundesliga’ will almost certainly also do so and move into second place this season, despite vastly fewer resources at its clubs’ disposal. How can this happen? Again, it is to do with innovation, and specifically the motivation to innovate.

When Italy’s clubs were the richest in Europe and attracted the world’s best players, they saw no further need to innovate. Nutritionally and tactically they fell behind teams from comparably sized countries. Initially, they were able to stay ahead through pure spending, but soon that did not work either. The key point is this: not only did teams from England, Spain and Germany have reason to innovate, teams from Italy didn’t - they (the players, the agents, the owners etc) were guaranteed big bucks anyway. Guaranteed, that is, in the short term – but in the longer term, hamstrung by spending too much money on ageing players or ‘big names’ long past their sell-by date, Italy’s clubs began to collapse in on themselves amid scandal and corruption, and soon fell behind the other three big leagues. Now we find the precise same thing with the Premier League, whose clubs spent more than any other league’s this summer (excluding the madly exceptional ‘Clasico’ clubs in Spain), yet have mustered only five wins out of 16 in Europe’s senior competition. They are spending, but they have lost the motivation to innovate which is leaving them clearly behind their Continental rivals.

So it is with Government. In a recent interview with the Welsh Health Minister, a BBC correspondent spent the entire duration of the discussion talking solely in terms of the amount of money being spent on the Welsh NHS. There was absolutely no discussion about how that money was being spent, or if it could be spent better (or worse, for that matter). The way we talk about politics and government finance, it is as if ‘more spending’ automatically means ‘better service’. In fact, it can mean the precise opposite – if the ‘big spending’ removes the motivation to innovate.

Northern Ireland, unfortunately, is a classic example. Faced with rises in Health spending which are below the requirement to keep up in percentage terms with increasing demand, the Service’s first act was to close an Multiple Sclerosis respite unit. This was a callous and outrageous act, from a Service which has, per capita, 42% more administrators than is the case in England. The first act should have been to cut the administrators, not the vital services.

Unfortunately, Northern Ireland’s public service has, by and large, lost the motivation to innovate, guaranteed (as it has been since 1998) ever increasing resources simply to keep doing the same thing. As a result, with some exceptions (e.g. in primary education), management techniques, government structures, bureaucratic systems and everything else are now decades out of date. Other countries are able to achieve the same or more with far fewer resources, because they have improved management, streamlined structures and reformed systems.

That we have a bloated political culture with no motivation to innovate either doesn’t help, of course. The latest farce was the failure to agree to put through the Housing & Regeneration Bill in time to transfer functions to local Councils when the new Councils come into being – a political mess which came about despite civil servants working hard to ensure the timescale was met. We also have the nonsense of moving a Department to Ballykelly for no particular reason; the failure to deliver a proper Education & Skills Authority; the outrageous waste of millions on a road (the A5) which was never, ever going to be built; as well as the planning nonsense at the Maze and Sprucefield. A proper, evidence-based set of priorities both at political and governance level with learning and information shared properly across all departments – which would have required innovative methods of collecting, assessing and distributing that evidence – would have seen none of these shambles taking place.

We are not alone. France and Italy offer two further examples of the classic ‘bloated bureaucracy’ unwilling to contemplate change because, for too long, money has been guaranteed regardless of the fact is has removed the vital motivation to innovate.

Public spending in Northern Ireland will now be reduced, fairly sharply. Again, a truly innovative public sector would already have prepared for this (and would already have innovated in anticipation of having to do more with less). In the short term, there will be outright cuts in services (which, note well, there absolutely wouldn’t need to be if there had been proper preparation for them) and these will have ghastly knock-on effects – not just on service users but on small businesses and even individual households.

We can only hope that, in the long term, cutbacks and reductions in the public sector will see some motivation to innovate appear within government, just as it did in those leagues with had to catch up with the Italians despite far more limited resources. Football fans, like the electorate, always just demand ‘more spending’ – and, like the electorate, they’re ignoring the fact that ‘more spending’ is no substitute for proper innovation and simply doing things better than the opposition within the resources you already have!

Time to sort NI’s road numbers?

This is a nerdy one, of course, but it is not a completely irrelevant side point that Northern Ireland’s road numbering is totally illogical. Recently, for example, the route number ‘A2‘ had to be removed from a gantry sign on the Lagan Bridge because it took drivers off the M3 but away from the ‘A2‘ (Belfast-Bangor road) most of them probably wanted!

A few relatively simple changes would make bring a degree of logic to the system:

- all Mx numbers (with two exceptions) should be re-aligned with their Ax equivalent (thus the M2/M22 shadowing the A6 becomes the M6; the M1 the M4; the M2 Ballymena bypass becomes M26; and so on), noting also that the Westlink can be deemed part of the (new) A4;

- the two exceptions are the aforementioned A2 in Co Down (Belfast-Bangor and then down the peninsula and on around the South Down coast to Newry) should be re-numbered A3 in line with the current M3, and then the current A3 should be re-numbered A12 in line with the current M12 (this conveniently dovetails with the Irish N12);

- all A5xx numbers should be renumbered from A70-A93 (so, all A50x numbers become A7x; all A51x numbers become A8x; and all A52x numbers become A9x);

- duplicates should use A6x (the current detached A4 from The Birches to Portadown becomes A64; the A6 shadowing the M6 may be renumbered A66 to avoid confusion; the A37 is Co Armagh which is a duplicate of the A37 in Limavady should change to A67; there is a case also for the Moira-Lisburn section of the current A3, detached from the section through Craigavon, to be the A63);

- some other odd-ball three-digit numbers could be sorted out too (e.g. A101 could become A51 or A61, as both are free); and

- there is now no need for the number ‘A8(M)‘ (it can be simply ‘M8‘), and the new Newry bypass could be instantly declared a motorway and renumbered ‘M1‘ (as many people think it is anyway!)

Such a re-ordering of motorway numbering would cause an initial confusion, no doubt, but it would be for the sake of easier use in the longer term (and it would also solve the problem of detached numbers, notably the current A3 and A4). Of course, the temptation is to sort the whole thing out and renumber the whole network – but that would come at a significant cost, whereas these relatively minor changes could be carried out with simple Regulations and relatively minor signage alterations.

Motorway junction numbers could also be simplified at this stage, perhaps as follows:

M1‘: 7 Sprucefield; 8 Blaris; then as A1: 9 Hillsborough RB; 10 Hillsborough Castle (then perhaps also as A1: 17 Sheepbridge; 18 Carnbane; 19 Newry South; 20 Jonesborough – to match those coming the other way at the border).

M2‘: 0 Yorkgate; 1 Nelson St; 2 Fortwilliam RB; 3 Greencastle; 4 Rushpark RB.

M3‘: 0 Yorkgate; 1 Titanic; 2 Dee St.

M4‘: 0 Yorkgate; as A4: 1 Divis St; 2 Grosvenor Rd; 3 Broadway; as M4: 4 Stockman’s Ln; 5 Black’s Rd; 6 Saintfield Rd; 7 Sprucefield; 8 Blaris; 9 Moira RB; 10 Lough Rd; 11 Ballynacor; 12 The Birches; 13 Derryhubbert; 14 Tamnamore; 15 Stangmore (then perhaps as A4: 16 Mullybrannon; 17 Old Eglish; 18 Eglish; 18A Killybracken; 19 Granville; 20 Killyliss; 21 Reaskmore; 21A Killymoyle; 22 Cabragh Hill; 23 Ballygawley RB).

M6‘ as M2 to 3 Greencastle, then: 4 Sandyknowes; 5 Templepatrick; 6 Rathbeg; 7 Crosskennan; 8 Dunsilly; 9 Ballygrooby; 10 Artresnahan (eventually as A6 probably: 11 Moneynick; 12 Toomebridge; 13 The Creagh; 14 The Elk; 15 Castledawson RB).

M8‘: 4 Sandyknowes; 5 Corr’s Corner RB (then perhaps as A8: 6 Houston’s Corner RB; 7 Coleman’s Corner RB; 8 Calhame Rd; 9 Ballynure; 10 Ballybracken; 11 Moss Rd; 12 Deerpark Rd; 13 Shane’s Hill).

M12‘: 11 Ballynacor; 12 Seagoe.

M26‘: 10 Pennybridge; 11 Broughshane; 12 Teeshan; (then perhaps as A26: 13 Clinty; 14 Glarryford; 15 Frosses; 16 Logan’s).

As ever, hat tip Wesley Johnston for such things!

Why young people don’t vote

Am I for Votes at 16? I suppose I am, in the sense that we had that in the Scottish Referendum so I think the precedent is now established (indeed it was established in Austria some time ago). But I have to caution that the notion this will suddenly double or treble the turnout among young voters is laughable.

He is my theory – though ’tis only that – on why young people tend not to vote: they are not used to compromise – whereas politics requires it.

Society and technology have changed significantly since the mass turnout elections of the 1950s. When my parents wanted to listen to music, they had to put up with a jukebox or a single family communal radio – in all likelihood they didn’t like most of the music they heard. By the time I was first taking an interest in politics and such like, we had moved on to walkmans – at least I could select my own albums and perhaps even make my own compilations and listen to them alone, but even then I would inevitably have to listen to a number of songs I was not keen on to get to the ones I really liked (and even then, replaying the ones I really liked meant the hassle of mastering the rewind, forward wind buttons). However, in the era of MP3 players young people can not only listen to their own music in private, but even download only the music they like – they never have to listen to a song they don’t like.

So it goes on. The notion of the communal family meal where everyone eats the same thing, even when that is something they don’t particularly like, is fading fast – it certainly doesn’t happen in my family. Young people can listen only to the music they like; and eat only the food they like. Whether this is socially desirable or even economically viable or environmentally sustainable is another matter – it is what happens.

So it is at the polling station. Young people want to vote only for candidates and/or parties with whom they agree entirely. If there is a single issue on which they disagree, they see no reason to vote for that candidate or party. The fact that withholding their vote effectively punishes the party with whom they agree on 90% of issues and rewards the one with which they agree on only 10% is neither here nor there.

It is absolutely not that young people aren’t politically minded – I suspect they are more so than any previous generation. It is not that they can’t be bothered (or that somehow making the act of voting easier would see them all turn out in their droves) – voting isn’t difficult and when it came to a really big but straightforward issue in Scotland last month they turned out in almost as big a proportion as any other age group. It is that they see no need to compromise.

Whether they are right or wrong in that is not for me to say. However, I do know that they are being punished for it. Older people – who do vote – get their pensions protected, their public transport free, their interests prioritised. Younger people – who don’t vote – see their benefits removed, pay full whack for a public transport they absolutely rely on because running a car is expensive, and their interests generally ignored. Because their interests are ignored, young people see nothing in it for them to vote – but actually not voting is the problem!

It is time for re-balance this vicious cycle and this democratic deficit. It is time for young people to participate not just in campaigns but in actual voting and partisan democracy, imperfect as it is. In short, maybe it is time to compromise?

Change to electoral system would help women in politics

Last month Mairtín Ó Muilleoir replaced Sue Ramsay in the Assembly for Sinn Féin, which selected Catherine Seeley to run for Westminster in Upper Bann but omitted Caitriona Ruane in South Down. The percentage of female Alliance Councillors elected this year fell from 40% to 25%. Not only is the gender balance in Northern Ireland politics abysmal, but it is getting worse – even parties which have traditionally been among the best in terms of female participation are evidently not able to do enough through their selection systems to maintain progress. The BBC The View programme discussing the talks – i.e. the political future of NI – had an entirely male panel of five. This was not the BBC’s fault, but obvious evidence of the difficulty of giving a fair say to women in a political system which is overwhelmingly (80%+) male.

All parties should give more consideration to the need for gender balance in their selection processes, but there is no getting away from the fact that the entire political scene is set up by men for men, even if inadvertently. It is somewhat macho, almost thuggish at times (literally during a recent Social Development Committee meeting). It is the nature of things that if a bias is inherent to the system, those within the system continue to maintain and even assume that bias, deliberately or otherwise. Candidates should indeed be selected on the basis of merit – but “merit” currently assumes male domination. This is seen in the culture of debate, positions on policy, and prioritisation of issues. It is a serious problem.

Despite some successes at civic level, it is now beyond dispute that the “gradual” approach to more women in politics, or simply relying on parties to ensure more women are selected, is not working quickly enough. This leads us to the notion of “quotas”, but I would suggest another change before taking that ultimate step – I would change the electoral system.

Among Northern Ireland’s neighbouring legislatures, only one has an even worse gender balance – the Republic’s 13% is shocking in AD 2014. Scotland’s is considerably better; Wales is best of all at 40%. It so happens that both jurisdictions in Ireland elect their legislatures by “Single Transferable Vote”, whereas Scotland and Wales both elect theirs by the “mixed member proportional” (MMP) system. It also so happens that those countries which have moved close to 50/50 – primarily the Nordic countries but also New Zealand – also use MMP or very close variants. The evidence is clear.

MMP works via a party list system, which is used to top up the results from individual constituencies to ensure the outcome is roughly proportional to the number of votes cast for each party. Instantly, this means parties are inclined to submit lists which have a reasonable gender balance – to attract votes, it is in their interests to do so. Even if that doesn’t work, it would be relatively easy to make it a requirement, or even have a system to select top-up members so as to ensure not just correct party balance but also correct gender balance.

There is an additional benefit that MMP is a far better way to elect a legislature anyway as it is simpler for the electorate to understand and legislators are inclined to consider the whole area when passing laws rather than just their own locality – which probably explains why only Northern Ireland, Ireland and Malta use Single Transferable Vote, whereas almost the whole of Continental Europe and many other places use MMP or a close variant. However, the main gain would inevitably be a better gender balance within our legislature – a first step in making politics more relevant to the voters.

NI’s Stark Choices – response

The Belfast Telegraph ran a long article entitled “Stark Choices” last week which is worth analysing.

Governance

The priorities of the article are a little strange, objectively. The immediate focus is on the direct cost of governance, i.e. the operation of the Assembly. Yet in fact Assembly running costs account for only 0.4% of Current Departmental Expenditure – and Current Departmental Expenditure accounts for less than half all public spending in Northern Ireland.

Perhaps MLAs should take a “normative” approach and show some willingness to share the pain, but the fact is moving from 108 to 90 MLAs or reducing their Office Costs Allowance further would make next to zero difference in the general scheme of things.

Economy

The article refers to the “highs of 2007” and even hints at wanting to get “recapture” those highs, but this is a false analysis.

2007 saw an apparent (but at best unsustainable and at worst plain illusionary) “boom” based on huge rises in public spending and a property binge. The Northern Irish were at one stage spending more money per week than any other UK region, despite earning around 10% below average (and producing 20% less per head). Therefore, the economy was in a shocking state in 2007 based on mass borrowing which inevitably led to mass indebtedness (including negative equity) and a tougher recession than anywhere else in the UK. We most certainly do not want to “recapture” that!

In fact, wealth is created by innovation and export, not bureaucracy and asset bubbles. This means that we need more businesses focused on innovation and export to create jobs to cover those which will inevitably now be lost from our bloated bureaucracy. It is certainly true that a big issue for investors and entrepreneurs when choosing location is political stability – but so is global connectivity and workforce skills. Our record on those is at best mixed.

Health

The section on “Health” was excellent – there is too little journalism like it these days!

It should be noted, however, that the “£75 per head” extra spending in Northern Ireland still sees us spending less on Health as a share of overall public spending than England does, and the gap is increasing (now around 19% in Northern Ireland and Scotland versus 22% in England).

What we do spend on Health is indeed spent far too disproportionately on bureaucracy. As noted, there are 42% more bureaucrats in NI’s Health System than in England, but fewer clinicians and nurses.

There are problems with pay too. GP pay has soared in the past decade even though GPs now work fewer hours (the days of the midnight call-out) are passed. However, nurses are indisputably comparatively underpaid (not least because there are too few of them) – the gap in Northern Ireland between doctor and nurse pay is one of the highest in the world.

Another issue, common across the public service but most common in Health, is the poor standard of management. Management techniques are among the least advanced in the Western World in NI – the boom in agency staff is just one example of where it has all gone wrong; another example is the failure to evaluate transparently the development of many of the Transforming Your Care reform plans.

Education

The situation in Education is not as bad as is being suggested, but the article is fundamentally right about the shocking political mismanagement of the education system. An attempt to stop transfer tests merely made them more pressurised; an attempt to merge Education & Library Boards into a single Authority took eight years; and progress on integration is snail-like. Worst of all is the underlying idea that schools with different academic intakes should just teach the same curriculum, with no thought for vocational linkages.

The Past / Policing

It is a cruel truth that the vast majority would prefer police resources spent on the present, to the absolute exclusion of the past if needs be.

One area omitted from discussion in the article is prisons. A successful reform has largely been carried out, but costs per prisoner remain high. “Patten-style” reform would be a good idea in practice, but seems politically impossible.

Local Government

It is hard to see where the projected savings of £12-£21 million per year in the new Councils come from. Fundamentally, the same number of bins need collected, and the original ideal of “co-terminosity” (shared boundaries with the likes of Health Trusts or police districts) has been abandoned for the sake of a grubby political deal. There are also issues around staff in mergers which are likely to cost ratepayers more, not less; and this is before we get to the £30 million set aside to subsidise rates in areas where they are going up rapidly as a result of merger.

Infrastructure

What isn’t made clear in the article is that the Budget cuts are coming off Current, not Capital, spending. As noted, this means that reductions in the Regional Development budget affect maintenance, not new building. The Maze has only been stopped because of politicking, and proposals Desertcreat need revised.

Arts

Spending on the Arts was already comparatively low. They are seen as an easy cut.

They are in fact nothing of the sort. A vibrant arts scene is central to the quality of life of any city or region, and actually a big reason people choose to invest or not invest in any given location.

This is to leave quite aside that orchestras, musical societies and drama groups are almost universally effortlessly cross-community, and provide in particular genuine skills – from teamwork to presenting to project managing – for young people.

On the contrary, if we wish NI to thrive as an integrated society which wants to keep hold of its young people, arts spending should be dramatically increased.

Political Alienation

There is a tendency to see political alienation as unique to Northern Ireland. However, elections in recent weeks from Latvia to Romania to America have all seen turnout fall.

Frankly, we have all come to expect politicians to perform miracles. We elect people often with no experience of anything outside the entirely theoretical world of political research or similar, and demand that they deliver complex public services of ever higher quality despite increasing strains on resources but we will not pay a penny more for those services. It’s ludicrous – but the electorate gets the politicians it chooses (or allows others to choose), and thus has only itself to blame.

Equality

This is described in the article as a “hefty price tag”, but it really isn’t, at 0.1% of public spending for an area which was the crux of the civil rights disputes in the first place.

The real issue is not the cost but the quality of Equality advice and services. It is concerning that Equality and Community Relations are to merge when logic (and experience from other jurisdictions) would suggest it should be Equality and Human Rights. Community Relations are an entirely separate matter from Equality, and the conflation of the two damages each.

Baltic states will pay for failure to forgive and include

I would imagine it was a bit like visiting Northern Ireland in 1964. On the face of it, it was a reasonably prosperous place. There was this thing about Catholics suffering poorer housing, higher unemployment and something close to a lock out from some senior offices, but they seemed to have accepted their lot (and an attempt at a terror campaign had ended in total failure). It was a little odd that symbols were so obviously British and even Royal when so many of the population didn’t really support those things, but life seemed to go on. Yet there would just have been a nagging doubt that this exclusion may come back, some day, to bite.

This was in fact Estonia in 2004, and the minority was not Catholic but Russian-speaking – specifically, people from elsewhere in the Soviet Union whose families had been moved to Estonia post-War. They accounted for a third of the population (similar to Northern Ireland’s in 1964, actually), yet held just seven of the 101 seats in Parliament – a much worse proportion, in fact, than Nationalists in the old Stormont. Locked out of power, they were subject to citizenship laws which they were not involved in passing which required them to learn Estonian; to symbols which were entirely from the Estonian Nation’s past; and to a West-leaning (pro-EU, pro-NATO) foreign policy which they had no role in shaping. In many ways it was a super, innovative country… and yet there was this nagging doubt…

Now the problem is very, very real. And it is much more relevant to global security than Northern Ireland ever was post-War; or indeed that relative side shows like Scottish referendums. In Estonia now nearly a quarter of the population have a vote in Russian elections, which they almost universally cast for Vladimir Putin; they watch Russian television (which is just mass propaganda which makes Fox News look genuinely fair and balanced); they do not yet consider themselves Russians in a citizenship sense (note foreign correspondents re-assuringly), but you know what, they probably soon will…

With Russian cyber-attacks on Estonian computing (essential, as all government data and business is carried out on screen) and even now incursions into Estonian territory to kidnap soldiers, that nagging doubt has been realised multi-fold.

Compromise. Why do they never compromise? Why do they always think minorities can just be wished away? I’d like to think it’s not too late now…

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