Category Archives: Uncategorized

This is no “expenses scandal”

As the title says, what was revealed on Spotlight is no expenses scandal. As the Justice Minister rightly implied, it is in fact systematic fraud which needs to be dealt with by the criminal justice system – and also, to an extent, by the electorate.

There are numerous points here to do with:

  • the distinction between potentially criminal activity and legitimate if questionable claims;
  • the distinction between corrupt MLAs (and parties) and fundamentally honest ones;
  • the inability of the political system to function while moral depravity (of which this is a symptom) lies at its core; and
  • the inability of politicians to act to restore order to public finances while they themselves are – in limited, specific but serious cases – abusing them.

Firstly, the distinction has not satisfactorily been made between legitimate if somewhat questionable claims (say for two iPads but also for thousands of stamps) on one hand, and blatantly fraudulent behaviour (claiming for journeys which were not made on behalf of someone else) rising to straightforward tax evasion (paying sums above the VAT threshold to a company not registered for VAT). Questionable claims are not ideal of course, but they are legitimate and any expenses system will have loopholes – there is a question of honour here, of course (as a Councillor I didn’t claim everything I was “entitled” to if I didn’t feel the entitlement was truly justified), but that is to be assessed by the electorate. Fraudulent claims are a different thing as they lie outside the rules and are an indication that the rules (regardless of what they were) were being blatantly ignored, and this is to be assessed by the courts.

As such, this is a very serious challenge to our political and legal institutions. We are about to find out whether we live in a true democracy or in a mafia-like state where some people are above the law. 

Secondly, it is an understandable but deeply and seriously flawed reaction to suggest MLAs are “all the same”. They are not. The very point of having elections is to boot out the ones who are corrupt, dishonest and incompetent. To opt out of elections, as seems to be the widespread view, is in fact to leave the corrupt, dishonest and incompetent ones in place. The voters have not only a role but a duty here to inform themselves and get to the polling booth to make a choice. That’s what democracy is – it is harmed when people opt out of it, and replaced by mafia-like behaviour ranging from incompetence right up to outright violence.

We in Northern Ireland should be more than aware of the penalty for not cherishing democracy – we must participate, campaign, vote and, frankly, elect the good guys (and gals). 

Thirdly, we should now quit the blethering about “talks”. You simply cannot negotiate with outright liars – the ludicrous notion, for example, that one party did a deal with the Assembly Finance Department to allow it to engage in tax evasion is one such lie. This comes on top of outrageous, uncivil and plain nasty behaviour from the “extremes” on each side (in inverted commas because they are central to politics currently) which had already dripped too much poison into the process. The two Governments, who seem to have forgotten they are guarantors of the Agreement which disallows such uncivil behaviour, need to forget about negotiations and start setting some ground rules while calling out bad behaviour for what it is.

And actually, you know what, if we want to “make it work” as the excellent campaign suggests, we must accept we are going to need different political leaders. That, again, is down to the electorate. 

The most serious short-term problem is the shocking state of Northern Ireland’s public finances. The scale of the mismanagement there is already staggering. Yet now we are beginning to see why some parties in particular are unwilling to implement any cuts or consider any revenue raising – they actually can’t, without obvious questions being alsed back about their own behaviour. Most stunning of all, frankly, was an MLA on my own Twitter feed suggesting “cuts” would not be necessary were it not for tax evasion – when all along his own party was evading tax! This renders the necessary financial interventions practically essential but politically impossible. It is a very serious conundrum with no obvious answer.

This isn’t an expenses scandal. It is a fundamental democratic crisis with real implications for jobs and services. We all, each one of us, need to grasp that.

To be clear, there’s no point in calling for “reform of the rules” when the issue is that the rules were ignored; there’s no point calling for an “independent inquiry” when we already know who was outright cheating, who was a bit dodgy, and who was basically honest; there’s no point negotiating when there is no trust and no justifiable basis for any; and there is no point opting out of the system if that merely rewards those who are blatantly abusing it.

Citizens and voters of Northern Ireland – it’s over to you in May!

Who needs to “wise up”, who needs to “lighten up”, and who are the “bastards”?

In France you may reasonably expect French culture, French symbols and the French language to predominate; this seems reasonable and no one seriously disputes it. In Estonia, some expect Estonian culture, Estonian symbols and the Estonian language to predominate; this is trickier, because in fact around a third of the population there comes within the last three generations from elsewhere in the former Soviet Union and has an instinctive preference is many cases for Russian culture and the Russian language. Estonia is learning, with some challenges, that it is a requirement of any State and its laws to respect the nationalities of its citizens even if these differ, just as it is of those citizens to respect the State and its laws regardless of their own nationality.

In Ireland, you may reasonably expect Irish culture, Irish symbols and the Irish language to predominate (at least officially); within the territory of the Republic, this is reasonable. In Britain (to use the shorthand for the UK), you may reasonably expect British culture, British symbols and the British form of English to predominate; this becomes interesting given the variations in different countries of Britain.

In Northern Ireland, this gives us a problem. In this part of the UK, British people living in the UK expect British culture, British symbols and the British form of English to predominate; surely this is not unreasonable? In this part of the Island of Ireland, Irish people expect Irish culture, Irish symbols and the Irish language to predominate; surely this is not unreasonable? (By the way, this preference for one particular set of symbols, culture and language is often referred to by politicians who happen to share them as “equality”.)

Neither is unreasonable; but both are impossible. We agreed, directly in 1998 and subsequently effectively in 2007, to endorse a deal in which we in Northern Ireland may opt to be British or Irish or both. We still struggle to recognise, though, that our fellow citizens’ right and genuinely held desire to be the one we are not actually limits us in the preference we may expect to be shown for our culture, our symbols and our language. Compromise is demanded by what is in effect not a choice of citizenship (British or Irish), but a collective joint citizenship (British and Irish).

Interestingly, it is the apparent desire to restrict other people’s culture, symbols and language rather than insist on our own which creates the biggest problems – an expansion perhaps of the “Endowment Principle”, usually reserved for economics, which essentially notes we place a far higher value on something if we already possess it than if we don’t. However, the fundamental difficulty concerns the notion of “entitlement”.

We are all theoretically entitled, as British or Irish citizens, to prioritise our own culture, symbols and language – so doing automatically means we give less priority to the other one.  We may even opt, as is our entitlement, to heap ridicule on the one we are not prioritising – for example, by referring to political opponents as “bastards” or by entering into a debate about “curry and yoghurt”. In fact, we may go further and directly attack the other citizenship if it seems directly to conflict with our own – by attacking imperial history or past military defeats (say, in 1690).

However, just because we are entitled to do something does not mean we should do it. Theoretically I am entitled to park all day on the Jordanstown Road near the station, but it would cause delays and inconvenience literally to thousands if I did so. I have a responsibility not to abuse that entitlement.

We are too focused on our individual entitlements and not focused enough on our citizenship responsibilities. In the same way we don’t block roads for the hell of it, we shouldn’t mock others’ citizenship for the hell of it either. For all our entitlement to enjoy our own culture and language, we have a fundamental responsibility in our agreed multinational society not to mock others’, least of all either of those specifically named in the 1998 Agreement as re-endorsed by elected representatives from all our main parties in 2006.

I am always one for “lightening up”. It is true that there are too many people looking to be offended and not enough willing to engage in self-deprecation. I will certainly lighten up at things which are: a) harmless, and b) funny.

In fact, in a fragile society where the penalty for ignorance and disrespect can be appalling conflict, mocking national identity and its associated culture, symbols and language is neither harmless nor funny.

Instead of focusing on how the Agreement gives us an entitlement differing citizenships as individuals, we should focus instead on how the Agreement gives us a responsibility to respect what is in effect a joint British-Irish citizenship as a society. This is a bigger ask than in France, or elsewhere in the UK, or elsewhere in Ireland, or probably even than in Estonia – but fundamentally it’s what we agreed was the only way forward in 1998 and endorsed again in 2007. (Our agreement on joint citizenship is distinct from our agreement to remain within the UK in a country called Norrhern Ireland – and by the way, no one who claims to be pro-Agreement yet refuses to refer to the country we agreed to live in by its proper and agreed name gets to give lectures on either “equality” or “bigotry”.)

It is time we replaced our demands and entitlements from each other as individuals with responsibilities and duties to each other as citizens. It is time we stopped to mocking and abuse and replaced it with courtesy and respect. Most of all, it is time our leaders were punished for behaving nastily and rewarded for common decency. In short, it is time we wised up.

Time for NI numberplates to come into line with UK?

Another nerdy one…

UK-style numberplate for Northern Ireland

UK-style numberplates for Northern Ireland?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s all about the big issues, eh?!

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.


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