Category Archives: Uncategorized

Local news on St George’s Day, 2024

There was further disruption in East Belfast last night after the City Council vote to restrict the flying of the Union Flag to the King’s birthday only.

Tensions were raised after the Council used its Nationalist majority to change the rules and fly the flag only on 14 November each year, as well as the Tricolour and the St Patrick’s Flag on 17 March.

United Official Unionist Leader Cllr Irvine complained that the decision was sectarian, flew in the face of equality policy, and that Nationalists were taking no account of the generosity Unionists had shown in the past by agreeing to fly the flag only on designated days in the old Craigavon and Lisburn Councils.

Independent political commentator Basil McCrea did note, however, that Unionists had changed their tune somewhat over the past decade, having previously demanded the flag fly all the time in Belfast. “No wonder more and more Unionists are opting for the garden centre”, he opined. The editorial in Northern Ireland’s only remaining regional newspaper, the online DetailNI, noted that, since the population of Catholic background is now larger than that of Protestant background according to the 2021 census (even though both are a minority), the disturbances are really to do with coming to terms with a new demographic reality in Northern Ireland.

Belfast South East MP Naomi Long hit out at the disturbances, saying that with complex negotiations going on people needed to reconcile. “My colleague, Michael Bower, will tell you that ever since he became Northern Ireland’s first Minister for External Relations after the Salmond Agreement and the introduction of the Statute of Autonomy, his job has been made ever more difficult by pictures of disruption being beamed around the world on our tablet screens.”

Economic commentator Richard Ramsay confirmed the concerns of business in Northern Ireland. “Ever since the Farry Doctrine increased our skills base and saw our standard of living rise to among the highest among UK regions outside London, we have to understand we are no longer such a special case” he said at a NIPSA conference in Belfast, admittedly to a frosty reception.

Prime Minister Rachel Reeves has refused to intervene, still reeling from the backlash from her decision to force through a smoking ban in all public places in England despite her party lacking a majority in Parliament among English MPs. All of this has seen a further rise in support for English independence at September’s referendum. “More and more people are grasping our message that the Celtic fringe simply costs us £20 billion every year and we get nothing back” explained the head of the yes-to-independence campaign, Lord Farage.

UUP Cllr’s offensive selfishness shows all that is wrong with politics

On 16 April, the BBC NI Evening Extra programme ran a slot on long-term unemployment, and on the contention that the City Council, despite passing a policy to assist, had not yet implemented it properly. Several clearly genuine people were interviewed, most notably a gentleman in his ’50s who said he had sent off countless letters to potential employers to no avail, and was now on a six-month programme which he knew would not lead to a permanent job. This is a genuine and truly desperate situation – fundamentally he is doing the right thing, but he is also right that employers don’t want to know. He is, in other words, the type of person that no one would mind their rates and taxes going to assist into work – the type of person for whom the Council policy was not working.

Here are the exact words of a local Councillor in response to this desperate situation.

Alderman Jim Rodgers, former Lord Mayor of the City of Belfast and Ulster Unionist Party Councillor on Belfast City Council. In the public sector, things don’t just happen overnight; and we’re in the midst now of local government and European elections and members’ times obviously are being taken up on that front…but we’ll get there eventually.”

In other words, in his view, the aforementioned gentleman should pause on £70/week while Councillors on £180/week (part-time, minimum) stop working on his behalf to get themselves re-elected.

It is despicable that ratepayers’ money goes into the pocket of a selfish and offensive representative whose prime interest is obviously himself. Speaking of elections, I trust the electorate see to it that this is no longer the case as of next year.

We’ll get there eventually…


Inner-city majority Protestant areas seeing vast improvements

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

A few statistics from the Village and Sandy Row area:

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

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

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


Xenophobic posters are economically illiterate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is “Single Transferable Vote”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clear? Hmmm…

Clearer, I hope!

Constant negativity will get other Progressives nowhere

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unacceptable for victims to bear entire burden

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

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

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

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

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

Northern Ireland leads the way on skills

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

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

Here are a few:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I disagree with Anna Lo on United Ireland

Anna Lo’s comments two weeks ago on the long-term future of Northern Ireland caused a furore when she said, in a personal capacity, that she thought it should unite with the Republic of Ireland.

Since I share Anna Lo’s social liberal stance on most issues, I will have no difficulty giving her my first preference vote, and campaigning for her. But I have to say I take issue with her explicit view that Northern Ireland would economically, politically and socially be better off uniting with the rest of the island.

So I guess I should come off the fence and state clearly an unequivocally where I stand. It is quite clear that, economically politically and socially, Northern Ireland should become the seventeenth state of Germany.

Economically, the case is quite simple. Over the past decade, German economic growth has been by far the fastest in Europe. German unemployment is also low at 5% (even youth unemployment is only around 7%), so you can take that map of unemployment in Ireland and shove it! Of all the parts of Germany, living standards have risen fastest in the five Eastern States, newly added to the Federal Republic in 1990. That is the type of growth which would also await Northern Ireland – except better, because DeLoreans are better than Trabants.

Politically, the case is even more compelling. Far from having to merge laws with the Republic or make up some new, unprecedented “Federal Ireland”, Northern Ireland would be joining what is already a Federal Republic – its domestic laws, legal system and education arrangements could remain unchanged, managed from the existing Northern Ireland Assembly (Nordirischer Landestag) in Belfast.

Even socially, in terms of identity, it makes sense too. Unionists will know what the Duke of Schomberg came from what is now Schaumburg, which is already in Germany. To seal the deal, Nationalists effectively get a United Ireland anyway – after all, the Republic has effectively been governed from Berlin and Frankfurt since 2008.

Northern Ireland would be one of the smaller States of Germany, of course, but far from the smallest – Hamburg is about the same size; Bremen and Saarland (itself transferred from France in the late ’50s – so a clear precedent, just in case anyone was thinking this proposal odd) are considerably smaller.

By the way, when it comes to sport, never mind a united Ireland football team – what about joining with Germany? In fact, it’s only right given that the penalty kick, which they have since perfected, was invented in County Armagh in 1891. “Wir sind nicht Brasilien, wir sind tatsaechlich besser” (“We’re not Brazil, we’re actually better”) would no doubt soon become a fans’ favourite.

Would the Germans want us? Well, probably not. But we should at least try, making the point that dealing with us would at least give them a break from having to deal with the Greeks once in a while.

The case is clear. Vorsprung durch Wheaten Bannock, as they whisper in Lurgan…


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,743 other followers