Category Archives: Politics

Sinn Féin still financially clueless

I was pleased to hear Sinn Féin was putting forward a motion on revenue raising. Sadly, in the event, it was thoroughly underwhelming.

It swiftly became evident that Sinn Féin doesn’t even understand the concept of “revenue raising”. A loan from the European Investment Bank is a good idea, but it’s already being attempted and is still a loan, it’s not “revenue raising”. The Living Wage is an economic pay issue but not in any way “revenue raising”. So we were left with removal of the Rates Cap – the same Rates Cap which is so regressive, Sinn Féin voted for it when it was introduced…

The DUP, which claims to be against revenue raising, is actually more concretely for it than the “Socialist” Sinn Féin. It now not only supports Prescription Charges, but also a slight rise in Tuition Fees.

It is very difficult to run an administration in which parties are so financially misleading or clueless. Others may determine which…

Pay MPs more to stop second jobs?

I was on BBC Radio Ulster yesterday on the subject of MPs’ pay.

I found the whole debate fascinating and, as I said, I have come to no clear conclusion on it. However, the case I made was as follows, and I wonder what people think of it.

Firstly, MPs do have an incredibly important job – they make the laws of the land and oversee other policy (including foreign). For this, they are paid considerably less than, for example, many people who interpret the law or even enforce the law at a high level.

Secondly, the job involves immense stress. They represent 100,000 people, generally live away from home much of the week, and often work crazy hours in a pressurised environment. They have to balance interests of constituency, party and country in situations of high complexity. Small wonder that, only half way through the current parliamentary term, one sixth of the new intake of MPs had separated or divorced from their partner at time of election. That is a monumental price.

Thirdly, the job involves huge public scrutiny. MPs are held to higher standards than most people even in their daily or private lives. This is also highly challenging.

So, for a high level of professional skill, mad hours and huge stress, what do we pay them?

They earn two and a half times the average, but that is about the same as a public sector agency CEO in Northern Ireland; marginally less than the average school principal or police superintendent across the UK; and significantly less than the average NHS manager or GP. So where do we put them on the scale?

I think politics has to be a vocation, so I just about rule out GP-level salaries (even though, we may note, 800 people in the Northern Ireland Health Service alone earn over £100k, at least 50% more than MPs). However, maybe around a Superintendent of Principal, at approaching £80k?

The quid pro quo, as I suggested, was zero tolerance for other income of any direct kind at all – resignation of paid directorships, no dividends, probably no property either. There would also be zero tolerance on dodgy expenses claims. My suspicion is the public would live with a pay rise in those circumstances, even a fairly significant one.

I don’t accept, by the way, the line that there are loads of “good people” turned off politics by the “low salary”. In the case of Malcolm Rifkind (you’ll have to excuse me omitting his “title” in the current circumstances), you are dealing not with someone who needs more money, but with a pathetic man who has gotten well above himself. So I do not believe higher pay would end such issues entirely, but it would make them a lot clearer cut. I wonder if that’s a compromise we could live with?

Regional press need to make first move to tackle innate sexism

Peter Oborne’s remarkable letter of resignation from the Daily Telegraph contained an interesting section about how the press (and the media in general) have certain “duties” when it comes to democracy.

I wholly agree and indeed I wrote last week about how the media have a duty to inform. This is something which applies most obviously to the public service broadcaster, but I think it applies to the press as well – not least here.

The regional press is in serious trouble in Northern Ireland. Sales are declining and newspapers are now largely kept afloat by advertising. Since much of that comes from the public sector, which is itself heading into choppy waters, even that is no security. I am sympathetic to their plight – after all, it is hard to compete when you have to pay hard-working journalists less than the public sector pays press officers. However, it does not yet seem to have occurred to enough people that, in order to survive at all, you have to add value.

The focus thus far of much of the coverage, ten weeks or so before the election, has been the age-old soap opera of “Unionist pacts” – a soap opera whose character are 90% males of above average age. The tiresome old charade is played every time, just so that politicians and journalists alike can fill space without having to think too much about real issues which may actually affect people. The whole nonsense takes place in an ever decreasing bubble from which the vast majority are excluded, and it is unsurprising that articles starting from such a prism usually mention only male candidates. The fundamental problem with this is that it is very boring and utterly irrelevant for the vast majority of the population, not least the 51% female share. This is not a “victimless crime”; turning off so many people in this way is extremely bad for democracy, and the media need to stop enabling it.

Lest you doubt me, let us remember that to, er, “compensate”, we often then get an unbelievably patronising article or two about how “glamorous” any female candidates look. Such articles focus on women on the ballot paper as if they are candidates for Hello Magazine rather than a Legislative Assembly or a Council, thus making the “Lovely Girls Competition” in Father Ted look advanced.. This again becomes a charade politicians (given the male dominance of the profession) are willing to go along with – staggeringly, in AD 2015, one party’s own press office referred to one of its own candidates as “photogenic” (one of her top three most positive traits, apparently).

This is all acutely embarrassing in what is supposed to be a modern society, but let us be clear: politicians will get away with this – the penalty may be a lower turnout but the same number of them will be elected regardless. However, journalists and editors need to realise that they won’t – the penalty is declining newspaper sales until there is no newspaper.

The press needs to realise, quickly, that democracy is not a soap opera, and the task of reporting it is not regurgitating the same old male-dominated charade that happens all the time but enlightens no one. For the sake of themselves, and for democracy, it is time candidates were assessed equally and on their merits – regardless of gender, and regardless of “community affiliation”.

Chelsea’s fundamental problem with racism and xenophobia

It was 1 September, 1997 – the early days of multi-channel television and the (dial-up) Internet. I was sorry to hear Lady Diana had died during the wee hours, but never one for celebrity it was not something I dwelled on. I switched to German satellite TV, only to find that it too had handed over all its channels to coverage of the incident.

So I went to the Arsenal FC web site “chat room” to talk about something else, but in vain – I was by a stream of highly sympathetic messages about what had occurred. People from Beijing, Dubai, Kuala Lumpur, Copenhagen and elsewhere were queuing to pay their respects. Many paid specific respects to England/UK given that she was from the same country as Arsenal, but generally it was accepted that the world had lost someone special. It was all done in a spirit of generosity, and was in its way quite touching.

The only other club which had anything similar in those early days was Chelsea FC, so I headed over there really out of interest to see if something similar had occurred. Oh dear.

A Swedish supporter paying respects was told in response: “Get lost, she was British. Ours. Nothing to do with you”.

One message from Waterford was met with the retort: “Get lost. Your lot killed Mountbatten”.

Except, er, they didn’t write “Get lost”.

This was but one example of many – from a Tottenham Hotspur supporter’s letter this week to a FourFourTwo article a decade ago – which indicated there is something different about a very significant number of Chelsea FC supporters. This does not apply to all of them, of course; but the level of xenophobia, racism and anti-Semiticism – or general “fear of other” – experienced when coming into contact with Chelsea supporters is vastly disproportionate.

We know this in Northern Ireland, with our own battles trying to overcome the innate “fear of other”. Indeed, it was sadly predictable that one of the three supporters identified in connection with last week’s incident was from Northern Ireland. What we know beyond all dispute is it is not good enough to think you can overcome it by applying a penalty to a few who happen to get caught or happen to display this fear at a particular extreme; nor is it remotely reasonable to dismiss it as a “few bad eggs”.

No one doubts the sincerity with which its manager and lead executives have approached last week’s incident, but the truth is Chelsea FC has a particular problem. It needs to start by admitting it.

BBC must remember “public service” ethos

Further to yesterday’s blog, I did subsequently appear on the Nolan Show on BBC Radio Ulster to challenge why his TV show had on as a “commentator” somebody who was thoroughly uninformed and just outright abusive. The defence was that he was taking positions a lot of the public take – but that is fundamentally not the purpose of a commentator.

If there are views held by the public which are uninformed, it is the role of the public service broadcaster to challenge them through people who are informed, not to pay people with our licence fees to regurgitate them in a particularly insulting manner.

The BBC seems to have forgotten that “impartiality” does not mean letting a deliberately insulting view on air and then trying to counter it with someone from the opposite extreme. It requires informed debate.

There would have been no difficulty if this “commentator” had competed equally with others for his platform. He is entitled to his views and to express them freely. In fact, however, he was elevated beyond others and deliberately given a much greater say than anyone else – despite the fact he had not a single qualification for that say (having no demonstrable expertise in the subject, no evidence of detailed practical understanding of the implications of the reforms, and no electoral mandate).

It does so happen that I spent many years, mostly voluntarily but sometimes with a prominent think tank, researching welfare issues. However, I can think of countless articulate people – at our Universities, at NICVA, in the Law Centre, in independent consultancies – who would have provided an informed view. To be clear, this may very well have differed from my view, but it would have constituted legitimate opinion rather than gratuitous insult. In short, they would have provided a public service.

The BBC also has a role not to encourage stigmatisation. It is correct that the reprehensible and groundless views expressed were challenged on air, and that other people with informed views were invited to speak. However, the real issue is why someone of such resounding idiocy was given preferential billing even to those other people. He was in fact invited on deliberately to be provocatively ignorant. It is simply not the BBC’s business to do that, particularly when it risks increasing the stigma felt by people who are genuinely vulnerable.

As it happens, I have almost never come across someone who fundamentally did not want to work (yes of course there are those who do not fancy discipline, or getting up for 9am or whatever, but that is not quite the same thing). Yet I have come across hundreds, maybe thousands, whose lives could be transformed even by a relatively minor, targeted intervention in mental health. This is an informed opinion based on lengthy research backed up by many others, and it deserved an airing much more than the ignorant ranting of an egomaniac.

The BBC must stop sacrificing the “informed” for the sake of the apparently “impartial” in the quest for ratings. If that must be done, leave it to commercial broadcasters. The BBC has a public service duty to inform and educate – and therefore not to elevate the deliberately ignorant and insulting. There is no excuse for a single one of its programmes not to pay heed to that at all times.

The *actively* sectarian nature of 80% of the NI Executive

The debate about teacher training places really is an incredibly simple one.

How many teachers do we need to train in Northern Ireland? Taking account demographics, retirement rates, later pension age and so on, certainly not more than 400.

The question then becomes, simply, how is this done most efficiently? By training them, as they do in similar locations like Glasgow and Dublin, within existing local Universities.

The Minister should now proceed to do that, with full Executive support.

That is, of course, where it all goes wrong. As a country recovering from decades, nay centuries, of sectarian conflict, for some reason 85% of those we elect (and thus 80% of our devolved government) think it is a brilliant idea to continue to educate our children along those same sectarian lines. In order to do this, it is apparently also a brilliant idea to train those who educate them along those same sectarian lines.

For decades, we have had money from elsewhere pumped into ‘peace’ funds on the assumption that Northern Ireland would obviously now proceed to break down the sectarian barriers which divided it and left it conflicted for so long. Instead, 80% of those we elect think it is a brilliant idea deliberately to maintain those barriers, from the age of four, and to secure them in place in terms of those teaching our children until about age 23. Far from bringing down the barriers, the Executive and 85% of the Assembly want to copperfasten them in place.

Which brings us to the next obvious question: why?

Just weeks after they went to the UK Government with the mother of all begging bowls pleading “special circumstances” because of the divided nature of our society, 80% of our Executive parties now thing we should bolt down those “special circumstances” and ensure the divisions remain in place for another generation. Apparently, this will bring us all to peace and the promised land.

Our sectarian politicians stamp their feet and rant and rave when they are not given money that they “need”. Yet when they are given the chance to prove they could spend money efficiently, they opt not just to spend it inefficiently, but to do so while maintaining in place the very conditions which led to conflict – actively and deliberately.

We would prefer to train 180 teachers we will never need (who will never ever be able to get a job in their chosen vocation here) in conditions deliberately segregated along sectarian lines than train 250 engineers in an integrated setting to provide skills which will encourage jobs and wealth for the same price.

That’s the bitter, inefficient and actively sectarian Executive 85% of you elected, folks. Today, they will no doubt prove it…

NI’s public sector is too big, and pay gap is too large

That Northern Ireland’s public sector is too big is taken as read by most people. Lots of things which are “taken as read” are not actually true. However, this one is.

I have a friend who did not go into the public sector. Instead, he was one of four people who set up a haulage firm which now employs almost 200 people – 50 people each – in addition to other employed indirectly because of its existence.

Had he gone into the public sector, it is possible that he would have earned well; conceivably, in cash terms, maybe even better than he has. Yet he would not have added those jobs. He would have been fine, but tens more would have had to find employment elsewhere – and, quite possibly, they would have struggled.

This letter denying the public sector is too large completely misses the point. It claims that the public sector is large because, basically, we are poorer; actually, we are poorer because too few of us create wealth, which can only be done in the private sector. It also claims that public sector pay cannot be compared to private sector pay because of the “make-up” of each sector. Well, precisely – if the public sector wasn’t the obvious place to go for a decent living here, more people would try their luck in the private sector. That is how a market economy works!

There is not a single jurisdiction in the world which relies as much on the public sector as Northern Ireland, and there is a reason for that. You cannot go on simply adding jobs out of thin air. Eventually you have to create wealth – and you do that through private-sector companies innovating and exporting, not through bureaucrats telling you they can’t send you the logo you need to put on your event form because that’s someone else’s job and they’re off today.

Even more important than this, of course, is the daft equation between “public sector jobs” on one hand and “public services” on the other. The example in the previous paragraph is actually from real life. There would be literally no disadvantage to public services if the person sending it simply were not employed. There would be no disadvantage either if all the NI Executive Departments’ finance functions were merged into one unit; no disadvantage if each Department had one press officer (instead of eleven or so earning more on average than the average journalist); no disadvantage if OFMDFM had 300 fewer staff as it never does achieve anything anyway; as well as no disadvantage of course if we had a total of ten Special Advisers (not 18), nine Permanent Secretaries (not 14), and 90 MLAs (not 108). Oh, and, by the way, we could probably manage with around half the 117 “quangos” we currently have for a population of under 2 million; not to mention one Teacher Training College merged into a University training 400 students per year rather than two independent training 580 each at a premium…

During the “Troubles”, it literally became the purpose of the public sector in Northern Ireland to provide employment, not just deliver public services. As we approach two decades of “peace”, however, we no longer get that by-ball. Like most normal societies, it is now for the public sector to deliver public services efficiently within budget we are as rate- and taxpayers prepared to pay; and for the rest of us to create jobs and employment through entrepreneurship and investment.

Welcome the Real World, kids.

Corporation Tax Bill designed for Scotland, not Northern Ireland

My company Ultonia Communications’ analysis of the Corporation Tax Bill appears here

The Corporation Tax (Northern Ireland) Bill was published last week, outlining the transfer of powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly for the setting of a Northern Ireland Rate of profits tax in some circumstances.

For such a vast and important change, it has received scant media attention. Being a serious economic and political matter, there has been almost no independent commentary on the issue at all and, insofar as there has, it has consisted of the standard Unions versus Businesses debate.

There are a number of essential points which should by now have been clarified:

  • the Bill does not set the Northern Ireland Rate of Corporation Tax at 12.5% (or anything else), it merely transfers the power to do so to the Northern Ireland Assembly (which could even set it at nil, if it wished);
  • the Bill is absolutely not about “tax cuts for big business” (its predominant focus is SMEs); and
  • any reduced rate would apply only to profits attributable to people employed and work carried out in Northern Ireland.

However, the biggest failing in the analysis so far has been on the overall politics of the Bill – and not just as it applies to Northern Ireland. Indeed, I would go so far as to say the Bill is clearly written for Scotland, not Northern Ireland.

The most obvious hint of this is in the list of “excluded industries” (also referred to as “non-qualifying”), i.e. the industries which would not qualify to pay the (presumably reduced) Northern Ireland rate. The list is fairly long but can be summarised broadly as just two – finance and oil/gas. These just happen to be Scotland’s two biggest industries.

The intention is clear. The first objective is to limit the prospect of Scotland wanting the same powers as Northern Ireland by ensuring Northern Ireland does not get an advantage in Scotland’s key industries. The second is to ensure that, if the politics force the same arrangement to be made for Scotland, finance and oil revenues to the UK Treasury nevertheless remain secure.

Implicit to the Bill, therefore, is that it accepts the risk that Scotland may want and get the same powers soon. This risk must also be applied to the economic models of the benefit of reducing the Northern Ireland Rate of Profits Tax within the terms of the Bill. This essential point must not be missed, as discussion of the Bill is close to pointless without it.

SDLP abortion stance a thundering disgrace

On Saturday SDLP Leader Alasdair McDonnell committed not just himself but also his party to absolute opposition to any change in abortion law.

This is disgraceful enough, but he would not even be open about the real reason. Abusing his GP credentials, he tried to argue that he knew that you could never be sure that a fatal abnormality was fatal. Of course, there are some cases of doubt, but it is a matter of fact that sometimes doctors can be 100% sure that the abnormality is fatal. So he is frankly making up myths to create a dodgy “practical” reason for what is in fact a profoundly and fundamentally religious stance.

Even if we were foolish enough to accept Mr McDonnell’s reasoning based on his professional experience, he committed his party to absolute opposition to any change in abortion law – meaning that the SDLP joins the DUP in rejecting access to abortion services in cases of rape.

Let us be clear here, there is absolutely nobody who opposes abortion in case of rape – except on religious grounds. You cannot be human and believe that a victim of rape should be forced to carry a foetus which reminds her hourly of the very horror that she has just been through. This is, therefore, an invasion into civic space of an exclusively religious argument – i.e. where religious arguments have no place. It is an attempt to impose an exclusively religious view on a diverse, secular society. That is exactly what the Conscience Clause is designed to do too. It is unacceptable.

Remember, no one would be forced to have an abortion under the Department of Justice proposals, even if these were specifically extended to include cases of rape. People of religious view would have every right not to have them. But let us be very clear what Alasdair McDonnell is saying to rape victims here: “I, a man, have a religious view; and that means you, a woman and a victim, should be deprived of any choice. Oh, and my personal religious views are more important than your emotional wellbeing.”

This, of course, came at the end of a week when the SDLP had already disgracefully defended single-denomination teacher training, committing us to another generation of schooling along sectarian lines in a society recovering from conflict along sectarian lines (and to removing student places just so we can subsidise trainee teachers, around a third of whom we know we will never need). The SDLP is, therefore, content for students to be deprived of places on courses across Northern Ireland and for sectarian educational division to be maintained as long as specifically Catholic teacher training continues to be subsidised by our rates and taxes. This is from a party which laughably claims the title “progressive”?!

This would all be a thundering disgrace at the best of times, but let us also remind ourselves that the abortion issue is one which directly affects only women. Men are never faced with the lonely choice, the lonely decision, and the lonely recovery. The SDLP – and let us be clear that Mr McDonnell spoke for the whole party – is putting Catholic rights ahead of women’s rights. It’s so very telling, and it’s utterly contemptible.

Why waste money on Health Reviews we’ll never implement?

I am cautious about writing too much about the Health Sector as I have three clients in the area. However, as a general point about the state of our politics, it is clear the Donaldson Report was a truly exceptional piece of work – and yet it was also a complete waste of £120,000 or so.

Sir Liam Donaldson has a well earned reputation as a leading UK expert in the field. Fundamentally his team noted, correctly, that media scrutiny and political needs mean the system is constantly in crisis mode, wondering where the next paralysing “inquiry” is going to come from – yet no one is paying attention to the real issue, namely the overall system.

The problem is that what it contained was utterly unfeasible politically. We need also to face the fact that when we say “politically unfeasible”, what we mean is voters will not tolerate it, even if they know it is the right course of action in the long run.

As my fellow blogger in Dublin Jason O’Mahony has pointed out, we should be absolutely clear what this means. It means any attempt to close a hospital (as we saw in Bangor recently) will be opposed by all local representatives even when they know maintaining a hospital with a dearth of expertise means condemning people to long waits, inexpert care and potentially early death.

If we wished to provide high quality care and extend life expectancy, as Donaldson points out, we would need to close such hospitals and instead extend Health Centre opening hours and improve transport provision to big hospitals containing all the expertise we need. There is zero chance of a single elected representative supporting that position, even though it is a matter of life and death and no one seriously disputes it!

Frankly, Donaldson’s is just the latest in a series of “Reviews” no politician is prepared to lead on, and no voter is prepared to tolerate – even though they all say the same evidently sensible things. The amount of money being wasted on a fundamentally inefficient Health  system (and on Reviews into it) is truly shocking – but we the voters are the ones determined for it to stay that way!

Give it a read – what do you think?!



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