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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!

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.

Reasons to be positive about NI

I often interject on this blog to write pieces about what is good about Northern Ireland. It is surely the case that we are at best humble and at worst plain cynical about our own homeland!

No one is doubting we have our problems, but I have written before about some aspects of our Health Service which are the best in the British Isles (such as our innovative work and networks on dementia or e-health); some aspects of our investment or tourist offering which are genuinely world class (say the remarkable boom in our creative industries about which the Game of Thrones is the highlight, something which would have seemed impossible a decade ago); parts of our education system (notably our change in 2007 towards specifying that children have to be taught decision-making – the outcome of which was highest marks in Europe and the English-speaking world for literacy and numeracy in a recent Boston College report). We are now a host for significant events – like the Giro d’Italia start, the Police and Fire Games or the MTV Europe Music Awards. That is leaving aside golfing greats, literature laureates and famous film stars all coming from this tiny spec of territory…

Much more important than any of that, I feel, is that we often reckon our foibles are somehow unique to us.

Our politicians are a joke – but then gridlock caused a breakdown in the finances of no other country than the United States last year; it caused Belgium to wait more than a year for a government this decade; and are we seriously suggesting the voids at Westminster or parish pumpers at Leinster House are a marked improvement? We don’t have leadership – but would we really want it from the likes of Francois Hollande or Silvio Berlusconi?

Our crime stories can be appalling. Every morning, seemingly, we wake up to yet another outrageous racist attack, disgusting arson threat or some depraved lunatic setting fire to an animal. It’s genuinely shocking there are so many deranged fools out there. But there is plenty of gang crime in Dublin or Limerick; murders by beheading in London; and a murder rate nearly double ours in Scotland. It’s a problem – but it’s not like it’s unique to us.

Our economy is a basket case. But then, no country in the UK pays its way. The Eurozone’s national debt is now rising to higher than that of the UK. Germany’s, France’s, Italy’s and Spain’s economies are all in recession – and, you know what, Northern Ireland’s isn’t!

I recently dashed to Central Station (admittedly horrendously named, a good fifteen minutes’ walk from the City Centre and don’t I know it!) in an effort to catch a train home after work on a Friday so I could have dinner with my lovely wife – her Council work often precludes this. As I got to the ticket queue I inadvertently muttered aloud “Come on, let’s get on with this!” – far from thinking me a fool, the kind young woman in front of me turned and said “Are you going to miss your train? Go on in front of me – I’ve been there myself in the past”.

Well, she probably did think me a fool actually (an entirely reasonable assessment, of course), but the point is she didn’t let it show! And the bigger point is I got my train just as the doors closed, I had dinner with my wife for the first time all week, and I got to think to myself “You know, there can’t be too much wrong with a place inhabited by good people like that”…

Left must cure its anti-intellectualism

This article isvery good for a number of reasons,but one is the issue that the Left becoming increasingly “closed“. Anti-intellectualism is a feature of “closed” politics, as is entirely obvious

The real issue, as expressed on BBC Newsnight by prominent American political philosopher Michael J. Sandel on Friday (the day after Russell Brand’s vague lunacy), is more that Western politics has become preoccupied by comparatively minor issues to which it takes a managerial approach. Hence, it is irrelevant.

As Russell Brand failed to provide any answers on BBC2, BBC Question Time gave yet another platform to UKIP’s “closed” and simplistic garbage. However, for once its representative was for once entirely overshadowed by a Trade Unionist, who treated us to a truly appalling demonstration of “closed”, unreal, anti-intellectual nonsense. Nominally he may be “Left” and UKIP may be “Right”, but the answer to anti-intellectualism is not more anti-intellectualism.

We were told that £120 billion is lost to the UK in “tax evasion” – a figure which, by definition, we cannot actually know but which we can reliably guess has been reduced under the current Coalition as convictions for tax evasion have increased by one third. We were told that £40 billion is lost in “tax avoidance” – except tax avoidance is perfectly legal, rendering this figure actually zero (actually the UK has one of the most efficient tax collecting regimes in the world). And to crown it all we were told that the banks are “holding” £500 billion – ignoring the fact that it’s not their money, it is the role of banks to hold money (at least 10% of deposits by good practice and convention), and that the very Credit Crunch was precipitated by the banks not holding enough money to cover toxic debts (the average UK bank had reduced its holdings to less than 2% of all deposits by 2008 – truly crazy stuff which enabled an unsustainable “boom” fuelled by bad debt).

it only got worse because, for all its apparent openness, the SNP also belongs to the ranks of the “closed”. Its outgoing Leader Alex Salmond, he of “decisions in Scotland should be made by the people of Scotland” fame, treated us to an outrageously hypocritical treatise of NHS England. In it, he failed to take account of the extra money the Coalition has borrowed to put into Health which has then been passed on due to Barnett Consequentials to Scotland – because he would have had to admit the SNP hasn’t spent all that extra money on Health; he failed to note that the protection of Health funding in England has seen the share of public spending on Health there rise to 22% – probably because he may have been asked to confirm that his own government has reduced this share in Scotland to 19%; and he castigated the Coalition’s desire to reform Health to make it more efficient so that the principle of free access can be maintained despite an increasing financial strain caused by an ageing population – despite the fact his government has an even bigger black hole to fill because it hasn’t carried out similar reforms, it has reduced funding comparatively, and it has not taken account that the strain in Scotland is more acute than anywhere else in the UK because its population is growing more slowly and ageing faster. Had Mr Salmond had his way. Scotland would have been the sovereign state with the lowest life expectancy in Europe in March 2016 (it is already the UK region with the lowest) – and its First Minister is telling the rest of us how to do it?!

There we had a Trade Unionist and a First Minister engaging, supposedly on behalf of the “Left”, in outrageous, anti-intellectual fiction. No wonder so many people are disillusioned by the whole charade!

NI parties must recognise need to reform welfare

Irish Nationalists think the UK’s welfare system as at May 2010 was absolutely perfect.

That is the logic of their current position in Northern Ireland. Much has been made of how Nationalist opposition to matching welfare reforms being carried out in Great Britain is leading to mass pot holes, delays in cancer treatment and increases in housing rents – all of which is probably true. However, rather less is being made of a more obvious point: Northern Ireland’s current welfare system isn’t fit for purpose, doesn’t work, and therefore obviously needs reformed. In fact, to be clear, Northern Ireland parties, if they opt against Great Britain’s system, are obliged to design their own and would be perfectly at liberty to do so without losing ‘parity’, provided it was designed to achieve the same outcomes as the one in Great Britain.

The truth, in Northern Ireland as in Great Britain, is this. As each generation goes by, proportionately more people are caught in the welfare trap, spending almost all (or even all) their adult lives on benefits. At the same time, the system has become so complex that many who are entitled to benefits and to whom the system would provide a useful safety net are deprived of access to it. Others, meanwhile, who are willing to work and who would gain from the social networks and self-esteem of doing so find it entirely financially unviable to do so. What kind of ludicrous system is that? Yet it is the one Nationalists have chosen to defend and indeed to try to implement (remember, Northern Ireland must implement its own system if it breaks from Great Britain’s, even if it happens to be identical to the old one) – and that is the key point here.

It needs to be pointed out, decisively, that lazily seeking to re-implement a broken welfare system which creates an ever more hopeless “client state” of people for whom benefits are a way of life is indefensible. Welfare was designed to be a safety net, not a way of life – and reforms are necessary to return it to doing what it was designed to do. This has nothing to do with “cuts” and everything to do with helping people live the most enriching lives they can – something the current system actually inhibits in many cases. (Note again here: even if we accept that in addition to the reform programme the Tory-led government is introducing benefits “cuts”, Northern Ireland is quite at liberty not to introduce such “cuts”, and in fact to invest more in its own reform programme. That would require our MLAs to explain what reform programme they will carry out and what else they will cut or where else they will raise revenue to make that investment. Has a single MLA done this?)

It also has to be pointed out that Nationalists are refusing to govern. Government requires compromise, not grandstanding for partisan gain. Even if they fundamentally believe the old system is perfect, they must recognise that others don’t and seek a deal accordingly. Instead, they are playing into the hands of those who wish to reform the system radically by refusing to operate the current system and thus threatening to collapse it (the benefits system, not the Executive) altogether.

So the challenge has to be clear and from all quarters: why are Nationalists seeking to put back in place a Welfare System which stops people from living enriching lives and fails comprehensively to meet the goals for which it was established? Let us hear from them what is so wonderful about that broken system that it must be re-implemented, almost literally, at all costs.

And while we’re at it, why are Nationalists refusing to govern, especially given this is a system they largely created in the knowledge that it requires compromise? Let us hear from them about why the current system of devolution should not be reformed (another area where Nationalists are universally unwilling to see reality or compromise), when they have failed to operate it in good faith. Those are the real issues here.

Northern Irish need to learn not to vote for gridlock

Never has faith in Stormont been so low screamed the Belfast Telegraph on the basis of a Lucid Talk poll last week – and no doubt it is true. Yet the very same poll showed that if an election were held tomorrow, the DUP and Sinn Fein – the parties responsible for Stormont and thus for that low faith – would romp home with half the vote.

This is plainly senseless. Yet still it seems a majority of us outside the DUP and Sinn Fein don’t understand this “democracy” lark.

One Belfast Telegraph correspondent openly called for Direct Rule. That would be Direct Rule by a Conservative-led administration, despite the Conservatives being rejected at every post-Agreement election in Northern Ireland. At the last European election, they came last, securing less than half the vote of a new party which had imploded the day before polling. If we wanted a Conservative-led administration locally or in Europe, we could have voted for one – yet we didn’t. It is thus fundamentally undemocratic to argue that we should get one (other than at UK level – we have accepted that by accepting that we should remain within the UK at a referendum in 1998). We have tried ignoring the fundamentals of democracy before – it gave us half a century of incompetent single-party rule followed by a generation of terror. I wouldn’t recommend we try it again.

Others demand we reform the institutions. Of course, I have recommended reform myself. But the are not going to be reformed by those who benefit politically from leaving them the way they are – namely the DUP and Sinn Fein. They will coolly blame each other of course, but the reality is no party or coalition willingly changes the system through which it gained power… unless it becomes genuinely scared that it will soon lose it…

It is a strange form of democracy admittedly. This is not because it is a “mandatory coalition” (firstly because it isn’t; and secondly because Grand Coalitions are quite normal in Europe); it is because parties are entirely communal and derive power from playing the blame game against each other. This is quite normal politics of course, but in our case they are obliged to stay together – frankly for the quite sensible reason that power-sharing is necessary in a society whose past consists of violence founded upon segregation and consequent ignorance and hatred. So to be clear power-sharing and Grand Coalition devolved government are the only show in town – if you want people to work them better, you want people to reform them at the edges, and frankly you want people who are more representative (we need more women for an obvious start), we need to stop just talking about it. Get out and campaign and stand and vote for change!

This is the point. We need to face the fact that we have gridlock because that is what we voted for – and apparently would continue to vote for. If you want proper government rather than gridlock, don’t vote for the parties which have delivered it. If you want reform of the structures, don’t vote for those who derive their power from the current structures. If you want better politicians, well, it is your responsibility to get them elected.

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.

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