Category Archives: Uncategorized

A quick fix to Stormont’s broken system

Straight and to the point from my online sparring partner Andrew G. – as noted here last week, it is not so much the system which is broken as our willingness to share the burden, and often unpopularity, of government.

I have written many times before that the problem in Northern Ireland remains that each side is being sold a vision of outright victory, where the “other side” will just go away. For Unionists, Northern Ireland is “British” (whatever that now means), and thus “British” people should have precedence. For Nationalists, Northern Ireland is “Irish” and thus “Irish” people should have precedence. Anyone else is a “guest” – oh yes very welcome of course, but on the home side’s own terms only…

Whatever system you come up with, we still therefore live in a society where people elect parties to deliver outright victory. Since outright victory is impossible, this means eternal gridlock. Each side of that gridlock demands elections and so on, which will only deliver further gridlock. However, we need to remember something: it is not the politicians delivering gridlock. The politicians are only there because we put them (or allowed them to be put) there. We are responsible for the gridlock!

Therefore it doesn’t much matter what “system” you have in place, until we elect parties who are honest enough to recognise compromise isn’t a dirty word, and that in an inevitably multi-party government it will be absolutely necessary, there is no chance of progress. Frankly, we need to stop being selfish and demanding it all our own way or no way. (I have written before how “Progressives” are as guilty of this as anyone else.)

In short, the issue isn’t that we don’t have an opposition, it is that we don’t have a government! It is not that the government isn’t held to account – it is that it is, to the extent that it is even held to account by its own members, rendering effective governance impossible. (That is not to say that a large minority cross-community ‘opposition’ wouldn’t help, by the way – it is just that the problem needs defined properly and we need to be realistic about the prospects of delivering this.)

It so happens, to force some progress, I would establish an external “Independent Standards Commission” on a similar basis to the previously existing “Independent Monitoring Commission”. This would have a remit to do two things:

  • assess the validity of Petitions of Concern, with the power to instruct the Speaker to render them invalid if: a) they do not have signatures from more than one “designation”, and b) it is not clearly indicated how the issue would negatively impact in a discriminatory way on a specific group; and
  • hold judicial authority to remove/bar a Minister found guilty of breaching the Ministerial Code.

This would mean that Petitions could only in future be used as they were intended in the Agreement (i.e. as a genuine protection); and that the Ministerial Code (which was central, we should recall, to the DUP’s “victory” at St Andrews) would be enforced.

This would have an important practical outcome as it would no longer be necessary for both the DUP and Sinn Fein to agree on things for them to pass: either the DUP or Sinn Fein would be free to seek an alternative majority (in practice requiring at least two designations) from among other parties to get things through. This would have the effect at least of limiting gridlock. It would also re-establish the primacy of the Rule of Law and consensus – Ministers would no longer be able to attack the police or the judiciary, nor would they be able to go on “solo runs” on big issues only to find them subsequently overturned in Court.

However, this would still only be a sticking plaster until such time as the electorate realises that if it wants progress for all of Northern Ireland, it has to vote for parties who represent progress for all of Northern Ireland. It’s that simple.

If you’re going to be a pedant…

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt corrected Alliance leader David Ford in the Assembly this week – when the latter used the word “referendums“, the former couldn’t get in quickly enough to interject with “referenda!

Well indeed, every Oxbridge-educated scholar would know that the plural of neuter second declension nouns in Latin is -a.

Except, ahem, referendum is not a second-declension noun. It is a gerund, and thus has no plural as such.

It is true that gerunds have plural forms. However, because it is a gerund, referendum in Latin means “referring thing” or perhaps more idiomatically “referred matter”; thus the plural form referenda would mean “referred matters”.

However, only one matter was referred to the people of Scotland last week – thus it was a referendum. The clear context of Mr Ford’s remarks was to refer to similar instances of a single matter being referred – in which case the productive plural formation is quite correctly referendums.

If you’re going to be a pedant, it pays to know your stuff. Quod erat demonstrandum.

US must win Ryder Cup

Europe is getting just a bit cocky about its favourites tag for this week’s Ryder Cup. Here’s why a bet on the Americans may not be a bad thing.

Firstly, the “Miracle at Medinah” was something of a fluke. In fact, in 2012, the Americans won 17 more holes than the Europeans. Excluding the 18th, they actually won 25 more – nearly one per match. American wins were all 5&4, 4&2 and such like – whereas the Europeans won not a single match before the 17th. The Americans played the better golf but crumbled right at the end if it came to it.

Secondly, the Ryder Cup needs an American win. If Europe wins, that’ll be 6 of the last 7 and 8 of the last 10 (and five in a row at home). That is no longer competitive – it is almost a return to the days of the Americans beating the British Isles all the time.

2014 was the first ever year that Europeans won 3 out of the 4 majors. It would be good for golf, however, if the late honours in the year went back across the Atlantic.

Notes on the Scottish Outcome

I’d be interested in comments on these thoughts about the electoral situation in Scotland now after the referendum results. They are in no particular order and I am but an outsider, so corrections welcome!

1. Polling surveys can be better than exit polls. Postal votes accounted for the majority of the gap between “Yes” and “No”. Roughly 3.6 million votes were cast, nearly a fifth of these were by post (as postal “turnout” exceeded regular turnout, as it always does); it is possible as many as 70% of those 700,000 were for “No”, but even if that is an exaggeration the chances are that the gap within those 700,000 was at least 200,000 – more than half the final 400,000 gap. This was the fundamental peril of an exit poll, and it actually why YouGov’s final “survey” (which included postal voters) was more accurate than an exit poll would have been.

2. Scotland is now split four ways in terms of political identity. Around a quarter of the population are vehemently Scottish Nationalist, telling pollsters that this was about “freedom” and getting away from the “yoke” or even “slavery” of England; around a quarter favour Scottish independence but with no particular nationalist fervour, they merely believe it is time for Scotland to “stand on its own feet” or for Scottish decisions to be “made in Scotland”; another quarter feel Scottish predominantly or solely but are relatively content to be in a Union with other countries if it is deemed to be in their economic or social interests; a final quarter are British (though they see no clash between this and Scottish of course) and would have sense a profound loss of identity in the event of independence. The battle of course was fought in these middle two quarters; the skill of the “Yes” campaign was utterly to detach the notion of “Scottish Nationalism” on one hand from the notion of “Scottish independence” on the other, but they didn’t quite do enough in the end to ease uncertainty among those who feel Scottish and are open to independence but also have no real objection to being in a Union.

3. The SNP will be unharmed by the defeat. On the contrary, 45% is something of a victory in context. The challenge for the SNP is to keep united under new leadership (something which did not happen post-1995 in Quebec, to use that risky parallel). This will be challenging, not least because there are obvious personality clashes (as there were the last time Mr Salmond stood down) and the SNP has to meet the aspirations now both of Scottish Nationalists and of what we may now call Scottish sovereigntists (see above, i.e. those who want an independent Scotland for the sake of standing in the world as it is now or simply breaking away from a British elite, but who have no interest in Wallace or such). However, the prize for unity is a good result in 2015 for a start. Despite not doing so well in the “heartlands” at this referendum, there is no reason the SNP should expect to lose UK Parliament seats; on the other hand, the good performance in Glasgow and other urban areas means they may reasonably expect to gain seats there (especially if they can appeal to “sovereigntists”).

4. The Scottish Conservatives now have most to gain. “No” did markedly well in areas which are (or were recently) SNP/Conservative marginals and, even more relevantly, the Scottish Conservatives are now offering more powers to Scotland than anyone else except the SNP itself among the four traditionally main parties. It is a big ‘if’, but if the Conservatives can get the balance right between meeting the interests of “English votes on English issues” with “fiscal autonomy for Scotland” and lead the delivery of both, they will reinvent themselves as a distinctly Scottish party with a track record of delivery there. It is a big opportunity.

5. Gordon Brown had nothing to do with it. The fairly boring story of the polls in this referendum is that the polls were right, except that as ever they missed the 3-5 point swing to the status quo at the very end (hence my own prediction on Facebook on the morning of voting that the result would be “around 55% no”). There was no late swing in the final 24 hours beyond that which was predictable weeks beforehand. Gordon Brown’s speech was an absolute barnstormer, but it was too late and made no difference. (“The Vow” had very little to do with it either – it was a foolish, cack-handed and mischievous response to what was, frankly, one dodgy poll by a company which proved overall to be among the least accurate.)

6. The “Yes” campaign was predominantly civic and not political, and thus so must the response be. A Constitutional Convention is a good idea, both within Scotland and across the UK.

Obsession with “private” involvement in Health is hypocritical nonsense

The equipment used by the Health Service is privately produced. The medicines are privately provided. The hospitals are privately built.

That alone – in addition to the fact school materials are privately published, roads are privately constructed, key public sector recruitment is privately delivered – should tell us what an absolute nonsense our politicians’ obsession with ‘privatisation’ of our Health Service is.

Politicians, particularly in Northern Ireland (but also notably in Scotland and Sweden currently), are experts at trying to pull the wool over our eyes by taking a stand on something they can’t deliver or focusing on something they know to be irrelevant to draw our attention away from the issues they could affect but aren’t competent enough to deal with. Yet again we see them failing completely to capture the key issues around Health (and indeed Welfare) Reform, while at the same time frothing at the mouth about “privatisation” in health care.

This would indeed be a scandal if it turned out that contracted private provision were actually costing more than public provision would. Self-evidently, however, it is costing less – otherwise it wouldn’t be contracted. The public sector doesn’t produce health equipment, or provide (and research) medicines, or build hospitals (or for that matter schools or roads etc) precisely because it would be more expensive and less efficient (generally – there are exceptions, particularly the dreadful PFIs). The reason is that the private sector can research and thus deliver specific, advanced, innovative expertise well beyond that provided by the public sector because the private sector can take risks while developing and researching this expertise that the public sector can’t. There is no particular reason that health care provision would be any different. That is why many countries have it – including right-wing hotbeds like Sweden and Denmark (where even the ambulances are private).

It is noteworthy also that the concern in this “debate” is not the patient (for not once has anyone suggested patients are receiving inferior care or placed in greater danger by private provision) and far less the taxpayer (who is receiving greater value). Oh no, we hear nonsense about “the private sector is only in it for the profit” – ignoring of course the point that public sector workers receive higher salaries and pensions, one of the likely reasons that private sector provision is better value and more efficient for the taxpayer. (One correspondent even condemned the notion of trying to provide services “on the cheap” – as if that’s a bad thing!)

What is happening here is a nonsensical and hypocritical “sector wars” approach which attempts to pull the wool over our eyes to protect a system which is bureaucratic, inefficient and expensive. Laughably, this is presented as “protecting the NHS”!

In fact, to “protect the NHS” (i.e. a Health and Social Care Service free at point of access which provides quality provision without an unbearable burden on the taxpayer) it will become increasingly important to shift to less bureaucratic, more efficient, more cost-effective means of service delivery. Unlike politicians who are actually endangering the Service with their hypocritical bluster, I don’t care which sector provides that as long as it is ultimately accountable – and, if you really care about the principles of the NHS, nor should you.

Northern Ireland vastly better than 20 years ago

One correspondent joked that I should be “more definite” in my blog pieces, so here’s another one: the notion that Northern Ireland isn’t multi-fold better (and more cohesive) than it was 20 years ago is complete drivel!

In the Northern Ireland of 20 years ago, with freakish exceptions, you never saw a different coloured face and you never heard a foreign language. No one wanted to come and live here; actually, no one wanted to come and holiday here. You did see plenty of army (and other) checkpoints; you did take ages crossing the border; you did face restrictions to where you went and when. And murders were more common than road fatalities are now.

Host a major music awards ceremony, or the start of a Great Cycling Tour, or a major golf championship? The notion would have had you in hospital laughing! This is a better country.

Promote an Irish language job freely in East Antrim, or park a car with a ‘GB’ sticker in Andersonstown, stroll into a political event in the Felons Club to mention your dad was in the Army in open discussion? That would have been cause for genuine concern. This is a more cohesive country.

The Troubles. What were the Troubles? People who will soon be driving and voting actually ask that. My 11-year-old stepdaughter condemned sectarian slaughter in Iraq on the grounds that “I mean, we have Protestants and Catholics but we don’t go around doing that”. To grow up in, this is pretty much a normal country!

Find the second highest and fastest growing identity here is “Northern Irish”? You know what, this is actually a country!

I suspect those who forget the obvious, vast advances are those who were anticipating something different. The notion of “peace” had perhaps always been of a “peace” solely on our own terms. We find one which is a mushy compromise a bit disconcerting – yet it is the only one available. And it is one which has improved things so immeasurably, that sometimes we forget to try measuring.

Is it imperfect? Look around the world and tell me somewhere that isn’t.

NI Corporation Tax reduction can’t happen

I was astounded to see media reports suggesting the UK Prime Minister is about to reduce Corporation Tax in Northern Ireland. This shows a basic misunderstanding of devolution – and of politics.

The UK Government has never claimed to have the power to reduce Corporation Tax in Northern Ireland. What is being considered is the devolution of Corporation Tax to the Northern Ireland Assembly. It would be for the Northern Ireland Assembly (Executive, in practice) to reduce Corporation Tax, not the UK Government.

This is important because, of course, that couldn’t possibly currently happen. For all their talk of lower business taxes (DUP) and all-island tax harmonisation (SF), the fact is the DUP and SF have brought the Executive to the brink of collapse over immediate spending reductions (necessitated by maintaining the current broken Welfare system) and ongoing real-terms spending reductions (necessitated by the UK Government’s determination to reduce the deficit). The idea that they would double this burden by adding hundreds of millions to the “savings” already having to be made to take a punt on the long-term benefits of a Corporation Tax reduction is laughable. Reduction of Corporation Tax, even if it were devolved, would merely go into the pot with all the other issues upon which the DUP and Sinn Féin are gridlocked – from the single education authority to the Maze.

A Corporation Tax reduction can’t and won’t happen any time soon. Don’t trust anyone telling you otherwise.

Time for Sinn Féin to “show leadership”

When Unionists of various stripes have been caught breaching the basics of the 1998 and 2006 Agreements and even engaging in hate speech, Sinn Féin has strolled up to the parapet of the moral high ground and demanded that the DUP and others “show leadership”.

I am not one for “whataboutery”, but I’m not one for hypocrisy either. So, after the appalling example of hate speech exhibited by a band at the Ardoyne Fleadh (cheered, note, by hundreds present), we are entitled to suggest that perhaps now is the time for “Ireland’s largest party” to, well, “show leadership”…

Let us be clear, the band was cheered because it expressed a sentiment hundreds of thousands of people in Ireland share – that the “British” have no right in any part of Ireland, that Unionists and other non-Nationalists aren’t really “British”, and that therefore there is no place for “Britishness” at all in contemporary Ireland. These sentiments are utterly unacceptable – partly because they simply are given the reality of contemporary Ireland, and partly because we all signed up to binning them in 1998. That includes Sinn Féin.

I have ranted ad nauseam about how the 1998 and 2006 Agreements – and, more importantly, basic common decency – require Unionists to come to terms with the Irish national identity and citizenship held and cherished by many of their co-citizens in Northern Ireland. However, that absolutely works both ways. Required also by those Agreements is respect for British national identity and citizenship, and also for the constitutional position of Northern Ireland within the UK. It is understandable that people who grew up fundamentally opposed to Britishness and all it stood for and believing that the constitutional position is the result of a terrible historical injustice would have difficulty with this, which is precisely why it requires those who signed up to it while recognising the need to compromise to “show leadership”.

What happened at the Belfast Mela, at the Cenotaph commemoration of the outbreak of World War One, and at Belfast City Hall’s Peace Vigil was a recognition of our different national identities but also of our common citizenship. What happened at the Ardoyne Fleadh was a disgraceful hate-filled rant which has no place in post-Agreement Northern Ireland, and which should probably be prosecuted for incitement to further hatred.  Let’s hear Sinn Féin say so – no ifs, no buts.

A “United Ireland” won’t happen. Ever.

I am pleased to see, over on Slugger, at least the hint of a real debate about a “United Ireland”. Most of the basic sentiments – that we need some economic reality and that Northern Ireland has to work for all its citizens – are spot on and conveniently are necessary to any constitutional preference. This is why my own politics were always based on those sentiments.

I have put forward various thoughts on how a United Ireland could operate – most obviously, like Australia (a federation with the current Monarch as Head of State). However, I have done so primarily to demonstrate that “Nationalists” are either so biased that they find this unacceptable, or so disinterested that they find this irrelevant. It is no surprise to me that the only threat to the UK comes from Scotland, not Northern Ireland.

The truth is this: a Unitied Ireland is not going to happen.

Why not? Let us go back to the Covenant. One of the main aspects of that document in September 1912 was the economic argument that splitting Belfast – its shipbuilders, rope makers, linen weavers and so on – from the rest of the UK would see tariffs imposed and thus create costs to exporting to the UK which would render them unable to compete with the West of Scotland and the North West of England in those key industrial areas. The point here is that in an era where there were tariffs imposed on trade between any two countries, it made sense to belong to a large country. There were two prime reasons for this: first, it gave you the biggest possible free trading zone; and second, it gave you the clout of a powerful government to negotiate trade deals with other large countries on your behalf. That is why the map of Europe at the outbreak of World War One consisted of a unitary British Isles, a larger single Germany, a huge Austro-Hungarian realm, a newly united Italy and large Russian and Ottoman Empires – alongside France. Spain and not much else (even Sweden and Norway had broken apart only in the previous decade).

A century later and we live in a vastly different Europe, where tariffs and many other trade restrictions between countries have been abolished. This makes it no longer necessary or even beneficial to belong to a large country. With the benefit of free trade, countries such as France and Germany are the exception in Europe – which contains a raft of countries at around 7-11 million (Belgium, Portugal, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic. Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, Sweden etc), another set at around 4-5 million (Ireland, Denmark, Norway, Finland. Slovakia, Croatia etc) and another lot at around 2 million (Slovenia, Latvia and Estonia). This is vastly different from what went before, but it is enabled by free and peaceful trade, and thus the pressure is for more break-up – perhaps in Catalonia, Venice or Scotland to give some obvious examples. After all, if Brussels is already handling everything from foreign trade to social regulations; and you are already handling domestic policies and laws, what role precisely do Madrid, Rome or London play?

Therefore it is no coincidence that, aside from Germany, there really is no precedent for uniting a country in modern Europe – the movement is all the other way.

Germany itself is not a useful precedent either. It consisted, legally and practically, of the dissolution of the German Democratic Republic (what the English-speaking world but not the German-speaking world referred to as “East Germany”) and the expansion of the Federal Republic of Germany (“West Germany”) to incorporate its territory. The equivalent would be the dissolution of Northern Ireland and the expansion of the current Republic of Ireland to include 32 counties not 26. Overnight, the Northern (NHS-style) Health system would be abolished, its laws would be replaced (e.g. the Rules of the Road would change) or repealed (e.g. laws on equality or animal cruelty, which are often markedly lacking in the Republic), and rafts of people would be out of work (most civil servants would be unnecessary; all lawyers now unqualified; and so on). This would be much more dramatic in fact than it was in Germany, where some “Eastern” systems were maintained by the new States (in their own policies and laws; unlike Ireland, Germany is a federation) and “Easterners” gladly underwent training in new “Western” systems accepting from the outset that they were inherently better. This is why no one seriously advocates such a method of unification for Ireland.

So there is no precedent. In fact, most Nationalists who think about it come to suggest that Northern Ireland would continue to exist, with its own separate laws, education system, accounting methods and so on. But that takes us back to the above question – if Belfast continues to manage the domestic policies and laws, and Brussels does the foreign stuff, what exactly would Dublin be doing? The answer to that, hypothetically, is it would be working out what to do with its new security headache and how it was to manage a mammoth subvention to Northern Ireland – a subvention to a place with half the population but the same number of public servants, for some reason. Hypothetically… it wouldn’t be daft enough to do it in reality, of course.

Even without that headache, the simple fact is the “United Ireland” thus created would consist of a legally separate unit, with its own laws, institutions, heritage and identities. That has been tried, of course – in 1707, when the Kingdom of Scotland was united with the Kingdom of England. How’s that one working out in the modern context explained above?!

So no, a United Ireland is not “closer than it’s ever been”. There was one chance of it ever happening outside the UK, and it was wasted at Easter 1916. Towards 2016, all the trends across Europe tell us there was more chance of a sovereign Northern Ireland than a sovereign United Ireland some time this century. What was that about making Northern Ireland economically viable and a fair home to all, Irish, British and neither…?!

Reality of poverty: the left denies it, the right ignores it

I was on BBC Good Morning Ulster last week discussing figures which show that two thirds of people in Northern Ireland (a comfortably greater share than in Great Britain) have pay-TV services – i.e. extra subscription channels of various kinds.

This is odd, of course, because apparently over half the population (vastly more than in Great Britain) suffer ‘fuel poverty’, and indeed are ‘unable to heat their homes’.

This leaves a minimum of 15% of all households in Northern Ireland who are opting to pay for extra TV services (over and above the already existing multi-channel Freeview) but are at the same time unable to heat their homes…

Herein again we approach the problem of tackling poverty. The Left deny the problem – arguing essentially that only rich people have pay-TV. The Right ignore the problem – arguing that such figures, essentially, give them justification for doing so.

There are a few home truths, of course, which we don’t much like talking about. Firstly, it is simply not true that over half of households in Northern Ireland cannot afford to heat their homes (it is merely true that energy prices are a bit higher here and thus take up a higher proportion of household income – but then we pay lower domestic taxes and no extra water charge). Secondly, poverty rates are no higher in Northern Ireland than in Great Britain (surveys by the National Policy Institute consistently put them at about level, although the precise make-up of those on low income is different). Thirdly (as per the point I made on the programme which people struggle with but is demonstrably the case globally), people experiencing low income and/or social isolation use a decision-making process far different from the one middle-class people (including anti-poverty campaigners) would expect, including placing a far higher premium on home entertainment than other people do.

I gave an example from this book of a North African who only worked half the year, and even then for the bare minimum. He could not afford to clothe his family and they were to all intents and purposes malnourished, and yet they had a television. The same story is found across the world, from Latin American favelas to Indian farms. Televisions are deemed an ‘essential’ (when asked, owners usually say this is because they provide entertainment to pass the time and perhaps even a sense of broad social belonging), whereas shoes or even fruit aren’t. Move that to the Western World and you will find pay-TV given a premium over books, courses and such like – not a completely ludicrous choice, not least because (as was pointed out on the programme) pay-TV may be part of a cost-efficient bundle with other services (most obviously broadband).

What this tells us, as I argued last week, is that we spent far too long tossing around meaningless statistics, and far too little time really grasping the decision-making processes of those facing choices on low income. It is easy some of us to miss the very obvious point that motivations and even emotions are involved in those processes which many of us (particularly professional people with wide-ranging qualifications and reasonable incomes) have never experienced. It is too easy to try to understand people on low income or suffering social isolation through charts and graphs and even having great conferences and documentaries about them. I do wonder if we shouldn’t spend more time actually speaking to them?

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