Category Archives: Politics

Belfast Pride needs proper status

Honestly, going on parades of any kind just isn’t my thing – in the same way rock concerts or road racing aren’t. However, the Twelfth is clearly a significant event and television coverage reflects this; events such as Tennents Vital are well trailed; and the just past North West 200 and upcoming Ulster GP are given appropriate “major event” status by the Tourist Board.

This weekend another well-established and huge gathering takes place in Northern Ireland – a day of fun and frolics to be attended by thousands. Indeed, there is potential in future for it to grow, one year, into Europe’s showpiece event in a not dissimilar way to the MTV Awards or Giro Grande Partenza. I speak, of course, of Belfast Pride.

Much is made of this politically, and rightly so; but much could also be made of it socially and economically. It attracts people to Belfast. It brings people into shops, leisure facilities and cafés they would not otherwise frequent. Hotels can be booked out. In short, it is a significant boost to the city centre and its traders.

So you are left to wonder – why no “major event” status? Why so little trailing well in advance by the mainstream? I trust an evening’s coverage is being planned by BBC NI as I write? I ask these questions genuinely – but they do need answers. I wouldn’t like to think a Pride event would not be treated even-handedly…

Nationalists in NI must recognise need for institutional reform

Mandatory coalitions can actually work. There’s been one in Switzerland of the same four parties since 1959, in effect. However, Northern Ireland’s doesn’t work – it is time for Nationalists to face that obvious truth.

Northern Ireland’s system delivers a modicum of stability – but it is an expensive stability which delivers nothing but gridlock.

Ministers who breach the Ministerial Code – say, by endorsing terrorism or racism – are left in office. Issues such as educational or welfare reform are left untouched at huge expense. What Sir Humphrey once described as ‘organisational atrophy and administrative paralysis’ has become the ingrained norm.

There is a serious long-term penalty for this. As the institutions increasingly look like the utter facade they actually are, people justifiably give up on them – either by electing to them communal mouthpieces or not voting at all in the immediate term, but more worryingly by losing general faith in democracy in the long run. The opposite of democracy is chaos – chaos in which, in NI more than most places, gangsters and terrorists are only too happy to roam.

Thus, it is simply not good enough for Nationalists to endorse the pathetic status quo. There is no rational reason not to support, or at least engage with, Alliance proposals at least. As it happens, looked at objectively, there are some perfectly reasonable Unionist proposals out there too. It is time for progress and reform.

In 1998 we opted for democracy over terror. Now it’s time we made that democracy work.

Labour wisely accepts ‘anti-cuts’ rhetoric nonsensical

British Labour’s biggest problem going into the next election is that its own Leader looks as weird and out-of-touch as the incumbent Prime Minister. Perhaps his most awkward intervention before the bacon sandwich debacle was his appearance at an ‘anti-cuts’ Union rally when he tried to pretend he was with the crowd. His party confirmed at the weekend that he really isn’t – and rightly not.

 

Labour now accepts it was talking nonsense about the ‘Squeezed Middle’ and would in fact tax those on middle incomes more; and it also now accepts opposition to the Coalition’s spending plans (which see public spending rising in absolute terms but falling in real terms) is nonsense. This makes Labour a vaguely credible government – and it marginalises the ‘anti-cuts’ brigade who are, quite simply, wrong.

They are wrong because public spending isn’t actually falling in absolute terms; they are wrong because public spending reductions are not the same as ‘cuts’ (they may simply mean doing things more efficiently – to be supported, surely); and they are wrong because, as everyone now accepts, you cannot simply keep public spending ballooning when revenues are vastly lower than expected. Be very clear – anyone opposed to this is denying reality and not to be trusted.

It is worth repeating why revenues (at least over this parliament) have been so much lower than they were and, more relevantly, than they were projected to be. It is quite simply that the UK is a significantly poorer country than it was or, more accurately, than we thought it was in about 2007. Within three years of the run on Northern Rock, the UK Treasury’s revenues had fallen to 14% below where they were projected to be three years previously – the equivalent figure almost everywhere else in the West (aside from Southern Europe and Ireland, understandably) was around 5-6%.

In other words, the UK is 14% poorer than we reckoned. To sort that, we need to invest in skills, technology and innovation particularly where export-focused – as, in many cases, we are. But let’s be very clear, we cannot just spend money no one’s actually gone out and earned.

You don’t “defend yourself” by creating martyrs and encouraging terror

Okay, reluctantly, I’m going to bite and enter into the Middle East “debate”…

Like most people who have actually visited Israel and the Occupied Territories (i.e. both, albeit in my case the West Bank not Gaza), my first response to the all too regular outbreaks of murdering and maiming in the region is human concern. These are by and large fine, diligent, fun people who just want to get on but realise they are pawns in somebody else’s game. It doesn’t help to “take sides” partly because dividing the world into “goodies” and “baddies” is generally neither helpful nor legitimate, but mainly because it creates the view that this is some sort of sport where we have “our team” and “their team”. Actually hundreds of human lives are being wasted, and thousands of friends and relatives are being left in despair. It is more helpful to show concern at innocent lives being wasted through the actions of warmongering idiots than to pick a side on the basis of national or religious affiliation.

Closer to home, of course, we have the particular and frankly unbelievably irritating spectacle of thousands of people who have never been near the Middle East picking their “side” to legitimise their view of Northern Ireland rather than the basics of democracy, the Rule of Law and Fair Play. It is borderline pathetic to see people pick “Palestine” or “Israel” in the precise same way they pick “Celtic” or “Rangers”, and then justify or condemn everything from that ill-defined and frankly ridiculous position. It was the Israelis who kicked the British out in pursuit of a national homeland, and the Palestinians who (generally) seek partition, but, well, you know…

My good friend Richard Price pointed out the outrageous offence these parallels cause. The Army and RUC may have done some bad and illegal things, but they never carpet-bombed Newry; so shame on those who endorse equivalent actions elsewhere. Many people on all sides may have suffered from terror, but never on the scale of those on the Israeli/Palestinian border right now and on countless previous occasions; so stop pretending we “understand”. Most of all, we were never blatantly pawns in a global game, powerless in reality to do anything about our own society’s future – as we proved in 1998.

Then of course there’s the “well-meaning” but in the end almost equally non-sensical attempt to propose solutions which apparently “worked” elsewhere, which almost always involve for some reason involve South Africa. Let us leave aside the complete coincidence that Mandela’s release came five months after the Fall of the Wall (when the West no longer needed the White South Africans to defend Southern Africa from Communism) and 15 years after the ANC more clearly defined its goals and means of attaining them through popular protest and internal sanctions of a kind. Get this: South Africa is South Africa; Northern Ireland is Northern Ireland; and Israel/Palestine is Israel/Palestine.

Of course, there are universals in seeking peace and democracy, but so determined are we all to take “sides” or make “parallels” which happen to suit us that we tend to miss them. Firstly, if you want peace, it’s a good idea to stop killing each other; anyone doing so is to be condemned without reservation no matter what – and, for the record, you certainly don’t create peace by bombing hospitals and murdering children (an inevitable consequence of current Israeli action, no matter whose narrative it suits). Secondly, there’s more to democracy than voting – if people vote Likud or Hamas, be clear you’re not moving towards democracy (see above). Thirdly, and here’s the real biggie, people need to be motivated to seek peace – never underestimate the power of a populist seeking to justify violence for their own (not their people’s) ends.

On Israel/Palestine I will say this: we are all complicit in demotivating those who seek peace. The West has clearly decided that it is in its interests to prop up Israel, no matter how many children it murders; or even dare I suggest to promote instability in the Middle East no matter how many millions of lives it costs. I can only guess at the reasons for that, but I would guess they are at least indirectly almost all to do with oil. Until we in the West decide it’s actually in our interests to seek a degree of stability in the Holy Land through actions not words – and to deal with the short-term economic penalty (presumably a rising cost of living) to do so – we can put out all the hashtags we like, nothing will change. Honestly, I don’t expect to live to see that day – sadly.

Real German lesson: say yes to austerity!

It is an incredible thing – and indicative of how it has become entirely confused – that the “Left” repeatedly used the word “austerity” and does so with the supposedly automatic contention that it is a bad thing.

This is the same “Left” of course, which rightly argues against “excess”. It is indeed an outrage that City Execs get paid 180 times the average wage; that entertainers get such ludicrous recompense on the licence payer or the commercial viewer; or even in some cases that senior quangocrats get so much. Here’s the thing – the opposite of “excess” is, er, “austerity”.

Germany doesn’t get everything right by any means, but it is hard to dispute its recent sporting and economic success. Such success is not down to chance. One of the prime reasons for it is that Germany is a vastly more austere country and society than the UK, France or Spain.

Even in football this shows. The BBC and ITV both had a main presenter, a stadium presenter, a main commentator, a co-commentator, three studio pundits and usually also a stadium pundit – eight, in total. German TV tends to make do with one presenter, one pundit and one commentator – three!

Another obvious area is supermarkets. The big Tesco or Carrefour superstores of the UK and France are replaced in Germany by Lidl, Aldi and others very similar – based on the recognition that it is pointless to pay, in effect, to pay for the privilege of looking at products you’re not going to buy in the name of “choice”. It is the austere German version which is now coming to the fore in the UK and France, not he other way around.

The same applies to housing. While the social housing argument centres around the age at which children should not share a room in the UK, even the children of German professionals often share into their teens; thirtysomething Germans may still live in single-room flats; ownership in the exception in Germany, not the norm.

This austerity works, therefore. Underlying the German social model is the notion of what suffices, not what shows off. As a result, there’s rather more to go around – because, as a direct result of the promotion of austerity as a good thing, outrageous excess is frowned upon. Even successful businesses or indeed football clubs are absolutely expected to maintain community links and loyalty.

This is of course a consequence to a large degree of German history, particularly the lessons of the last War and its immediate aftermath, in which social and economic ruin was the prospect. Whatever about that, the simple fact remains in 2024 that all of these things are good and admirable – and austere. Austerity is a good thing. In this of all weeks, there is a German lesson we can all learn.

 

England needs thousands of miles of new motorway

England is an astonishing country for many reasons. One of those, it became obvious to me as I spent literally a full waking day in total of my holiday trapped between four particular junction of the M25, is that its M-designated motorway network has actually decreased in size this century.

Other than upgrades to stretches of already dualled A1, England has not built a meaningful stretch of motorway since the mid-’90s – the only addition this century was a small part of the M74 across the Scottish border which was already expressway. Scotland, meanwhile, has continued with the M74 extension and plans for other stretches; Ireland, of course, has built the most comprehensive motorway network in almost its entirety during that period.

In England, it is a particular grave concern because figures in late June showed it has the fastest growing population in the European Union bar Sweden. Much of that growth is concentrated in the south, within 100 miles of London. The road network there is not creaking – it has collapsed. On two separate days of my holiday it was taking people more than an hour to cover 10 miles of the M25 at more than one particular location. This is intolerable – for movement of goods and labour, and for the quality of life in general.

There is a peculiar reticence to mention the word “motorway” in England and Wales. The first toll motorway in the English Midlands was deemed a failure and plans for similar in South Wales thus abandoned. Otherwise, the very mention of the word “motorway” is avoided for fear, presumably, of sparking another “Swampy” protest.

It is nonsense of course. Few countries are more environmentally friendly than Denmark – only 20% of commuters into its capital city travel by car, and it leads the world in wind power technology. Yet it has built tens of kilometres of new motorway in a country whose population is a tenth of England’s this century – and even has plans for a new motorway bridge to Germany which it will fund wholly on its own. Denmark sees the benefit – yes, the environmental benefit – of ensuring long-distance traffic is not caught in endless jams with the fumes they create.

Motorways – specifically motorways, as they have to have limited access to focus on moving long-distance traffic quickly – are an absolute pre-requisite for a functioning economy and the UK is being left behind, with a network less than half as long as reasonable comparators (Germany, Spain, France etc). It is time not only to get over the reticence for using the word “motorway”, but to build lots of them quickly. They are, in fact, somewhat more important than high-speed rail links…

Unionists need to admit: so-called “British” culture is nothing of the sort

Unionists have been busy putting out joint Statements a lot recently – not necessarily a bad thing, in fact. The DUP claims this led to a better Twelfth. I’d be inclined to agree.

In fact, it bears noting that the Twelfth this year was something of a triumph for Unionism – precisely because it was largely respectful and usually fun (the same cannot be said for some of the events the previous evening, but let’s focus on the positive for now). The picture of the Orangeman doffing his hat to the Priest at St Patrick’s should live long in the memory – it represented the real Orange Institution and the real NI.

However, one statement in particular caught my eye – because with direct reference to parades disputes, it referred to “British culture”.

The problem is that what they describe as “British culture” is nothing of the sort. The even greater problem is they really need to admit it, for their own sake.

I spent much of my break – inadvertently in fact, due to the passport crisis – in England. More so than in my youth, much of which was spent there, England is now a very “English” place – not the mistaken type of “English” which mistakes “Englishness” with “Britishness”, but a very specific, patriotic and even multi-cultural “Englishness”. This is both bad and good news for Unionists (of any variety).

It is bad news for Unionists in NI because the post-devolution has seen the strong, and to my eyes positive, development of a clearly English identity. English flags are more prominent than Union Flags in England; the word “English” and “Englishness” is now used unashamedly (and, to repeat, to mark a clear distinction from “Britishness”); the English have decided, and not before time perhaps, that the correct response to the development of devolved identities elsewhere in the UK is the development of their own. I have long cautioned that the biggest danger to the Union (i.e. the UK union) may come from England, when the English decide it simply isn’t worth it any more.

On the other hand, it is good news because in my youth there was a real risk that “Englishness” would become adopted, frankly, by racists (closet or otherwise) and that “English” would come to mean not “British-Scottish/Welsh/Irish” but “English-immigrants/blacks/others”. That it has become a positive expression of clear and unifying identity (for the most part) is evidence that such a turnaround can happen – once the basic problem (in the case of “Englishness” the on-going differentiation with “Scottish” and “Welsh”, even politically) is accepted.

This development – as well as positive expressions of Scottishness, Welshness and a grown-up 21st century not particularly Anglophobic Irishness – has left Unionists lost. What they describe as “British culture” is totally foreign to 98% of Britons – in other words, it isn’t. They are left in a trap, claiming a “Britishness” they have in common with no one in order to distinguish themselves from the “Irish”, who have a worldwide diaspora. Whereas their Nationalist neighbours share a broad cultural identity with residents of the Republic of Ireland and millions of people of Irish heritage globally, Unionists do not share a cultural identity with anyone – not even their own professional class. It is this which leads to displays not of “British culture”, but of obvious insecurity.

This insecurity is not anyone’s fault, in particular. However, it is people’s fault if they choose to ignore it. It is time we all stopped using the term “British culture” for cultural displays which, while for the most part wholly legitimate displays of Ulster-Protestant culture, are actually anything but “British”.

Prescription Charges wrong for those with long-term conditions

My own position on prescription charges – and I write here in a purely personal capacity – has been slightly but understandably misunderstood. I am not particularly in favour of their return; what I argue is that, if people want more public spending, they have to be honest about where they are going to raise that money. If that does include Prescription Charges, they should say so; if it doesn’t, they should say where else it will come from.

What I am clear about is that if Prescription Charges do return in NI, they should return taking account of the basic principle of the NHS, which boils down to the point that no citizen should be penalised for happening to have a condition. I have a friend who has a huge range of allergies and thus often requires allergy relief pills; I have no objection to contributing to those as much as she does – it’s not her fault! Likewise, people with asthma did not ask to have asthma and thus should not pay more for access to the Health Service than the rest of us (which would effectively be the case if they had to pay for every prescription). There is a huge range of conditions which lead to greater prevalence of other conditions or diseases, and again those with such conditions should not be penalised, in effect, for happening to have them.

We do have to recognise that not only do Free Prescriptions lead to a loss of Health funding which has to be recouped from elsewhere, but also to more prescriptions (because they are now free) and more strain on the system – as evidenced by the 25% rise in prescriptions written in NI since they became free. On the other hand, it could be argued that Free Prescriptions are a basic aspect of a Health Service free at point of access. After all, if you pay for prescriptions, why not for surgery, or even just medical advice?

Regardless, it is clear to me that people with long-term conditions have life hard enough without being penalised further by having to pay for prescriptions, even if it is only up to £25 per year. That is more than someone like me, currently without any, is ever likely to pay. Whether free prescriptions remain for the greater populace is an even debate for me; but there is no doubt that free prescriptions should remain in place, universally, for people with long-term conditions.

Progressives must stop talking of “Centre” Ground

I was delighted to see NI21 candidate (and, more importantly from a social point of view, author of “Legacy”) Jayne Olorunda join the Alliance Party last week. She will not be the last to make that transition and help build a united, purposeful Progressive movement.

So, what do “Progressives” actually stand for? That was the perfectly reasonable question posed by one correspondent.

I have some thoughts on that, but I am not sure how many I speak for when I put those thoughts forward. Before I do so, however, I will say one thing about which I am absolutely sure – they must abandon all talk of the “Centre” Ground.

The “Centre” is a no man’s land filled with uncertainty and vagueness. It is a ground with no principles. It exists merely because the extremes exist. Its purpose is merely to balance those extremes rather than take them on. I have no interest in such unclear pointless irrelevance, and nor should anyone else!

Being “Progressive” is not about that at all. It isn’t about being in the middle, but about being out in front. It was in fact summed up by the 2011 Alliance slogan “Leading Change”.

So my thoughts…

As a core principle, “Progressives” regard the future as likely to be better than the past (certainly if we make it so).

“Progressives” prioritise jobs, health and education – but absolutely not nationality.

“Progressives” make no distinction between individuals based on background. They do not believe that any one group has a particular claim on this part of the world.

“Progressives” are untroubled by immigration, believing it on balance to be a good thing, noting particularly that immigration to NI from outside the British Isles is a good sign of how far we have come.

“Progressives” are pro-EU and quite globalised, noting that solutions to key issues (environment, free trade etc) require organised international responses.

“Progressives” in NI tend to regard their primary identity as “Northern Irish”, but are not nationalistic about this (given the point above).

“Progressives” support integrated education, community relations funding and shared leisure facilities as a priority.

“Progressives” tend to support the arts, noting the correlation between prosperity and strong arts scenes.

“Progressives” tend towards support for greater government revenue (and thus relatively high public spending) but not necessarily higher taxes – broadly supporting water charges, prescription fees and even road tolls and being wary about lower corporation tax.

Notwithstanding their support for the arts, “Progressives” are instinctively wary about public funding for general culture (including minority languages).

“Progressives” tend to support academic selection in the broad sense, but to oppose crude testing at 11.

“Progressives” speak highly of NHS principles but some would not be totally opposed to some charges (see above).

“Progressives” tend to support reform of welfare to promote work and reduce the benefits bill, but to oppose cruder aspects such as caps.

“Progressives” are unflinching in their absolute support for the Rule of Law, and see issues of parades and symbols as solvable only and primarily on that basis.

“Progressives” are future-focused and thus want to move on quickly from the past. Most, however, recognise a managed process is required.

The main point here, for all that, is that “Progressives” are a small third bloc (10% at the last vote count), and cannot afford to split over details. I may not be right about the above tendencies, but the key is to have some principles and base policies to agree on and build around. Most of all, these must be “ahead”, not “in the middle”!

Northern Ireland’s economic day of reckoning is nigh

Last week, fresh from their various breaks over the election period and public holidays and with the ten-week summer recess looming, our beloved MLAs found nothing more important to talk about than a suspension motion against one of their own number which couldn’t possibly pass anyway. Such mediocrity really shouldn’t be tolerated, but it generally is of course.

Mediocrity

The problem is, there are real issues MLAs should be discussing – and openly. They have, in fairness, touched on health and education recently. However, a serious set of proposals to deal with the forthcoming economic and financial reality still eludes them. Yes, we have an economic strategy and some decent recent investment announcements, but that isn’t the thorough preparation for the new reality which is necessary. Indeed, we won’t notice the difference until it’s too late..

The new reality is the inevitable consequence of the Scottish referendum. This will see more powers, including financial powers, devolved to Scotland and quite possibly also to Wales, meaning that:

- the Barnett formula will be replaced by a public spending settlement much more advantageous to Wales and the North of England and much less advantageous to Northern Ireland, which will be expected to raise more of its own income;

- failure to reform welfare will see Northern Ireland have to fund an ever increasing welfare gap;

- corporation tax may be devolved, but not uniquely to Northern Ireland, rendering it much less advantageous than the existing figures (which assume lower corporation tax uniquely within the UK) suggest, to the extent that it will in fact almost certainly be a bad idea; and

- the implicit expectation by the Treasury (and in the rest of the UK, insofar as it thinks about it) will be that Northern Ireland introduces water charges, removes rates caps, reinstalls prescription fees, and doubles household rates.

The alternative will be actual cuts – i.e. not the odd public sector worker not moved up a scale and the occasional closure of a highly inefficient body here and there; but real job losses in the public sector, huge cuts in the number of quangos and oversight bodies, and mass close downs of public-funded voluntary sector organisations.

This is the choice which is coming, without any doubt at all. If we wish to maintain public spending at anything like current levels, we will have to raise far more of it ourselves in the new quasi-federal UK. Where are the preparations? Where is the demand for them? We won’t notice there weren’t any until it’s too late…

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