Category Archives: Politics

Stormont: the options now

Clearly, two weeks ago, the DUP and Sinn Fein reached an outlined Agreement which would have enabled the appointment of a First Minister and deputy First Minister and then of eight Executive Ministers. In turn, this would have allowed restoration of the Assembly in plenary and in committee.

This first paragraph alone needs to be understood to enable us to grasp, structurally at least, what the options are now. The key point is this: the Assembly exists. The Assembly was correctly elected in March 2017, and it continues to operate – with its constituency offices, all-party groups, representative functions and so on.

As noted before, Northern Ireland has three specific peculiarities in its system which are too often overlooked by correspondents and commentators:

  • it requires an Executive to be appointed before its Legislature (the Assembly) may sit in plenary and committee (and thus before it can legislate and scrutinise);
  • it requires two specific parties to lead its Executive regardless of the election result otherwise; and
  • it removes its Ministers on election day.

Each of these is unique. In every other system (for example, up until a few days ago in Germany or for most of the past year in the Netherlands), a Legislative Assembly can sit and even legislate without an Executive in place; parties merely need to show they have the support, even implicitly, of a majority of that Assembly (even in systems, such as Belgium’s, which require a degree of power-sharing); and Ministers remain in place until they are specifically replaced.

Interestingly, the draft agreement did consider the latter. It suggests that an Executive would formally remain in place for up to six weeks after an election (while an attempt was made to form another), and that Ministers would remain in place for a further twelve after that (in an interim or “caretaker” capacity, as is common elsewhere) after which another election would take place. There has been some indication that the UK Government may proceed to legislate for this, and that would be wise as it would remove one of the unique problems and would at least enable decisions to be made in the event of a similar breakdown in future.

It would also help with the first point, as retaining an Executive through an election would enable an Assembly to sit and conceivably even legislate, even before a new Executive was agreed. That is now an area of discussion in the media and it is indeed where the UK Government needs to give some focus. Is it really wise to block MLAs from doing at least the scrutiny aspect of their job merely because two particular parties cannot agree (as is necessary because of the middle point) to form an Executive? Indeed, is there really any reason MLAs should be impeded from doing the legislative aspect of their role? The UK Government could, if it were legislating already to reform the timescale around Executive formation, continue to allow the Assembly to operate, at very least in Committee (primarily for scrutiny) and potentially even in plenary (primarily for legislation). There would be several advantages at least to doing the former – MLAs would be back scrutinising policy and thus could themselves be seen to be doing their job (and assessed on it) by the public; civil servants would feel more content to pursue certain policies given that they would be subject to democratic and local oversight in so doing; and indeed intra-party relationships could be built up to enable talks to restore the Executive to be carried out on a broader basis (so that no MLAs again feel they are being bounced into an agreement they have not even seen). Restoring a legislative function to the Assembly may be for later down the track, but would enable issues such as Health Reform and same-sex marriage to be pursued if that were the will of the democratically elected legislature. (This of course raises the issue of the Petition of Concern – is there any reason the review agreed to by the two main parties to be concluded in June 2018 should not in fact proceed?)

The middle point is of course trickier. How do you ensure genuine cross-community power-sharing? In practice, St Andrews made things worse, not better, but there is little prospect of the UK (or indeed Irish) Government intervening here while so caught up on other matters. That is, unfortunately, a problem we are left with and it is hard to see how it will be solved by those who have no electoral motivation for solving it – but there are, at least, other things we could be doing in the meantime.

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Ministers needed or universal free healthcare will be thing of the past

Opinion piece by Paula Bradshaw MLA (Alliance Party, Belfast South):

The news that the Department of Health would make arrangements to implement the recommended pay award for workers in the Health Sector was welcome, but the wholly unnecessary delay in putting in place a budget for it was just the tip of the iceberg. Health pay, budgets and transformation cannot be managed without Ministers in place urgently – and any party which really cared about our collective health and well-being would recognise this. 

The notion that we have a universal healthcare service free at point of access is already a delusion. Increasingly, people with means are understandably opting out of a system with vast waiting lists and collapsing primary care services, and choosing instead to pay to go private. This means we already, in practice, have a two-tier service – both for staff and patients. The founding principles of the NHS no longer have any meaningful application when that is the case. What needs to be done?

Firstly, any organisation is only as good as the workers within it, and if workers are not paid properly and do not have reasonable conditions, they will understandably begin to opt out. We need to reassess pay levels for full-time staff upwards in the light of the rising cost of living, and we also need to implement caps to stop agencies profiteering on the back of staffing shortfalls. This, of course, requires legislation – including a Minister and an Assembly. 

Secondly, we need to bring far more money into the Health Service while it is being reformed to enable “dual running” – i.e. the operation of the Service as currently alongside the reformed Service. This means a fundamental review of where we are allocating devolved funds – not least those wasted on segregated services or mismanaged programmes – as well as consideration of sources of other income. This too, realistically, requires Ministers and an Assembly. 

Thirdly, we need to implement the Bengoa proposals. This is an immense reform programme but it has the support of those working within the Service who recognise that it is the only way to restore a universal service free at point of access with expert, quality care available to the entire population on an equal basis. This will see more emphasis on the right pathway immediately upon entering the system, a greater focus on prevention and ongoing care in the home, and the development of world-class specialist provision. However, the programme requires significant legislative change – which again requires a Minister and an Assembly.

It is time for those who care about our healthcare to stand up and be counted. There is no excuse for not putting back into operation the devolved institutions of government to take responsibility for adequate pay, an enhanced budget and a vital reform programme.  

Identity politics work – sadly

In the UK yesterday, many people from the “Remain” end of the spectrum expressed disbelief that UK passports will be blue from October 2019. Some, the current author included, noted that they were not blue in any case before they switched to their current burgundy; others suggested there were other priorities in national life; still more tried to pin a cost on the change (we will come to that…); and pollsters said people did not really care that much.

Meanwhile, in the US, the President was arguing for the term “Merry Christmas” in preference to “Happy Holidays”. There was a similarly disdainful reaction from Liberals; and pollsters again said people did not really care that much.

However, I suspect people do care. That is why the UK Prime Minister and US President are getting up to such antics around “identity politics”. As we know only too well in Northern Ireland, identity politics work.

A few years ago, at around this time of year, Sinn Fein decided to switch its stance on the Union Flag at City Hall, thus meaning that an Alliance amendment in line with its own policy would see it flown only on designated days. Very few people would have expressed much interest in the subject to pollsters, but Sinn Fein was deliberately pulling at emotions and identities; and the DUP responded. The result was economic chaos – and both parties improved their position at the subsequent elections. Having messed around for a year now while Health goes unreformed, Education becomes unsustainable and the economy fails to grow, the two parties should be being punished by the electorate for their callous unwillingness to get on with the job – yet both, in fact, are scoring record poll numbers. Identity politics work.

I was in the US last month and I did notice the preponderance of the word “holiday”, to an extent that it is now plainly ludicrous. A market outside the Smithsonian in Washington DC plays Christmas music, sells Christmas gifts, is based on German Weihnachtsmaerkte (“Christmas markets”), yet incredibly is referred to as a “Holiday Market”. This, to people of even slightly Conservative leanings, is surely an example of political uber-correctness, and a reaction is unsurprising. This notion that things which are obviously one thing cannot be referred to as that thing for fear of causing some kind of “offence” genuinely and often in fact legitimately annoys people, even though they overtly make little of it. So, when someone actually appeals to that covert annoyance, it is unsurprising that that appeal is successful. Identity politics work.

And so it was with the response to the blue passports. Firstly, there is the somewhat academic factual reaction (“Ah, but Croatia has its own colour and it is in the EU”); but for people like last week’s Question Time audience in Barnsley, that misses the point and just looks smug. Secondly, there is the (entirely legitimate) mockery of the notion that the colour is “iconic” for the simple reason that UK passports were never that shade of blue; but perhaps this too misses the point, which is presumably that at least they will not be burgundy like the Continentals. Thirdly, there is the notion that there are other priorities; but here we have the Remainers/Liberals engaging in fake news of their own. Although the new passport provision contract will indeed cost nearly £500m, the fact is it would cost that regardless of the colour – so the notion that not changing the colour would leave £500m over to tackle homelessness or to spend on the NHS is no more accurate than the infamous £350m claim on the Brexit bus.

In fact, we all get embroiled in identity politics – even those of us who claim to be above it get embroiled in it, even though we tell ourselves that we only do so to try to emphasise why we are above it. In fact, I do think it is worth making the point that having a big fuss over changing a passport colour does make the British themselves look rather insecure and their government look pathetic. If anything, however, even this is merely a representative symptom of the broader problem – that the British are fundamentally insecure and their government is pathetic. To be clear, I could not care what colour my passport is, which means it does not bother me to change it; what bothers me are the ludicrous fantasies of “bringing back”, “iconic colours” and “independence” when we should not be seeking to “bring back”, there is nothing “iconic” about the colour, and the fact the passports will be made abroad to standards set abroad rather demonstrates the absurdity of the notion of “independence” in an interdependent world.

For all that, in fact what has happened is the Prime Minister has successfully diverted attention from the real story, which is that David Davis’ impact assessments have now been shown beyond doubt not to, er, assess impact. Since one Cabinet Minister has gone for lying, there is a cast iron case for a second going. But we are not talking about that. Identity politics can be a lovely diversion when you want to shield some other story – which is why they work. Sadly.

Is NI capable of public service reform?

In the midst of the Brexit entertainment, the RHI inquiry has been keeping Stormont occupied. Whatever the political fallout, it is evident already that it will demonstrate something beyond doubt – Northern Ireland’s Civil Service is in need of significant reform.

The media are highlighting the apparently obvious issue that the crux of the problem was that generalist civil servants could not fully comprehend a specialist issue (renewable energy). Perhaps the real issue, however, is that many surely noted the nonsense of offering subsidies greater than the actual value, but seemingly no one felt able to do anything about raising it.

I recently glanced at the application pack for a job in the NI Civil Service (which, by the way, is not a particularly significant employer here – many jobs which would be seen as “civil service” are in fact government jobs elsewhere, e.g. in a Health Trust). The advert specifically noted that the job was open to people from outwith the Civil Service. Yet, in practice, it wasn’t.

For, to have a reasonable chance at getting such a position, a candidate was required a strong knowledge of a vast table of competencies. Realistically, such competencies cannot be picked up off a page; in practice, those who could demonstrate those competencies from their past professional career would be at an advantage, meaning those who already knew them (i.e. those already in the Civil Service) would be at an advantage. This is in fact discrimination – it may be unintentional, but inevitably those setting the terms of the position will set them in a way biased towards themselves. This is widely recognised when it comes to tackling sexual discrimination or religious discrimination. Here was another example. An organisation really open to outsiders would not be forcing them into a straitjacket of internally recognised competencies before they even enter – quite on the contrary, it would be considering what additional skills and indeed ways of working they could bring into Service and emphasising those as priority.

When it comes to reform, this is very troubling. The Review of Public Administration was an example of such a shambles. The whole purpose was to save money and deliver what was known as “co-terminosity” – so that Council boundaries, police district boundaries, Health Trust boundaries and so on would align. Having taken so long that an additional local government election was required, the outcome astonishingly failed to meet either requirement. It would, literally, have been better not to do it at all.

Areas such as the Bengoa reforms are even more complex and many multiples of times more important. So the question has to be asked honestly: are we really up to it?

And then we have the vast complications of Brexit. Here, over 140 powers will be added to the devolved mix, even all other things being equal (and they may not be). Yet there will be a scant resource allocation coming with them. This threatens to cause paralysis in Whitehall, never mind Stormont. It will require vast reform – “doing more with less” as the slogan goes.

Add to this the prospect of marked additional powers to manage Northern Ireland’s specific solutions, changes to financing including corporation tax powers and reform of the education system. We have to ask serious questions about how any administration could possibly be prepared. However, this administration – one where new skills and thinking are actually discriminated against even when the need for them is recognised – will surely be particularly unprepared without reforming itself.

It is not only new skills and new thinking which will obviously be required once the RHI Inquiry is finished, but also the whole notion of the “generalist” civil servant. Rightly or wrongly, people will pose the question: can the same person drift expertly between managing the introduction of PIP one day to overseeing policy on the replacement of CAP the next? Is this a reasonable expectation of anyone?

Nevertheless, the broader issue seems why lower ranks seem disempowered (from, for example, raising queries when subsidy levels appear to exceed actual outlay). Northern Ireland’s administration needs experts with experience, coming most likely from outside the Service to work at least alongside generalists; and it needs people who will speak up, without fearing for their promotion prospects as a result. This is the level of the reform required.

One of the interesting aspects of an article from Queen’s University about additional powers for Northern Ireland post-Brexit was the implication that the public needs to be better informed and take more care. This perhaps is the crux of it. Bungles around RPA or RHI may sound like an alphabet soup, but they are not inconsequential. We need a public sector which is better at reform (including of itself), and a public which is better at caring about it.

“Civic nationalist” letter merely shows how powerless SF is

Sinn Féin made a fuss of an open letter to the Taoiseach from “civic nationalism” earlier this month – yet the signatories and the phraseology demonstrated that the whole thing had been orchestrated by Sinn Féin and thus was profoundly political, not civic.

That the letter was written to the Leader of Fine Gael merely shows how powerless Sinn Féin is for as long as it refuses to participate in the bodies to which it has been elected. With no Executive giving Northern Ireland true voice over Brexit and no Sinn Féin MPs participating in the Hung Parliament, the party was left trying to force a snap election out of which it may have gained a seat in the Irish Government – but that plan has gone out of the window too.

Sinn Féin’s representative work on behalf of its voters is often effective, but at a political level the fact is the party is lost. Many of its best advisers have left, it is losing local councillors to internal disputes almost monthly, and its next generation inspires little real confidence. The all-island Party is losing ground in the South as quickly as it is gaining it in the North.

To gain real influence, it will need to be a player – somewhere – sooner rather than later. This latest effort at invigorating supporters merely demonstrated how sidelined it is, at a crucial juncture in the island’s history. Its New Year’s resolution should be to enter the field of play.

DUP: “Destroy the Union Party”

I have followed and been involved in politics a long time, but I still cannot grasp what drives the DUP (or its fellow travellers like UKIP and the Tea Party). The positions they take are at such obvious odds from the objectives they claim to hold dear, you are left wondering whether they have some bizarre fetish for self-destruction.

Five years ago, the Union between Northern Ireland, England, Wales and Scotland could scarcely have been more secure. Scotland was stirring, a wee bit, but Ireland had just suffered a monumental financial crash and the UK (in the EU) looked a safe haven – able to borrow money despite a recession at such low rates that it in fact loaned some to Ireland. Within Northern Ireland, devolution was fairly secure and then, of course, the opportunity for Unionists to claim eternal victory arose when Irish Republicans, for the first time in history, voted openly to fly the Union Flag over a civic building in an Irish city – and indeed to do so in line with established and common British practice.

Of course, we know what came next. Unionists decided to resort to the streets in displays of “civil disobedience” (despite being opposed to this in the event, for example, of a “Hard Border”); they then decided clumsily to get involved in the Scottish referendum by, for example, advocating partition; they then thought it would be funny to kick the rug from under the basic 2006 settlement by taking money to join the “Leave” cause (despite having letters already penned from their own Ministers welcoming the stability which would have resulted from a “Remain” victory); then they decided to get embroiled in belief-defying incompetence around NAMA properties, SIF hand-outs, RHI boilers, RPA boundaries and much else while also ensuring Northern Ireland reformed neither its libel laws nor its party donor laws to protect their own interests; and then, not content with the damage already accruing in the light of a demographic trend which was always going to cost them their Assembly majority at any election, they hit upon the wonderful idea of withdrawing £50,000 of funding for poor children in a way calculated to disparage the Irish national identity cherished by hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens.

In the event of a “Hard Border” – which would be an inevitable consequence of the position adopted by the DUP – we now for the first time ever have more people in Northern Ireland declaring for a United Ireland than for the UK. As if this had not happened, still the DUP goes on with its arrogant rhetoric from fantasy land without even beginning to consider even what may be required to stop that “Hard Border” from becoming reality, far less to stop the trend of professional people in Northern Ireland thinking “You know, when you look at this carnage, maybe ‘Little Leo’ (who is quite tall actually) with his poppy-shamrock may not be so bad after all…”

Not being a psychologist, the best I can come up with is that for the DUP this is all a game. After all, most of its MPs are already extremely well off – and so, like their friends Farage and Trump, they will not suffer any practical consequences of Brexit, nor even of any United Ireland. They can play the game and they can enjoy playing the game – even if ultimately they lose. After all, it’s not the winning but the taking part, right?

Members of the Unionist minority had better wake up – and quickly – to the notion that they are just pawns in the game. No party serious about maintaining the Union would adopt the tactics, strategy or even tone their representatives are adopting. Put simply, the “Destroy the Union Party” is no friend of theirs.

Can Grieve and co save the Centre Right?

Last night’s parliamentary defeat for the UK Government must have been significant, since it sacked one of those defying the whip almost immediately. Perhaps it was significant for Brexit – that may come in another blog post.

Notably, however, I suspect it was more significant generally for centrism, moderation, and basic democracy. That is very important.

Across Europe in recent years we have seen the annihilation of the Centre Left. Usually, this has taken the form of harder left parties taking over from more established centre left ones – as in Greece, Portugal, even Ireland and to a large extent Germany. Occasionally in fact the populist-right has taken what were once centre left votes – in France, Austria and elsewhere. In some cases what were centre left parties have been taken over from inside by hard leftist populists, most obviously in the UK.

What has perhaps been less evident has been the risk of a similar, perhaps consequent annihilation of the Centre Right. It has already happened, albeit along its own already right-leaning spectrum, in the United States. Many in Europe who were once inclined to shield Trump-like views, such as UKIP in Great Britain, the DUP in Northern Ireland or the Danske Folkeparti in Denmark, have become much more inclined to state them openly. The problem with the prominent election of a sexist, racist, xenophobic psychopath is it tends to encourage others to try the same path. Why moderate if it makes you less likely to win?

This has left many of us in the UK totally mortified at what it appears our country is becoming. With newspapers categorising judges upholding the law and MPs upholding democracy as “traitors”, social media closing down meaningful debate merely by casting people into camps without in fact considering their actual positions, people decrying education and knowledge and demeaning those with them, and facts themselves becoming devalued almost to zero, UK political discussion has become a pathetic and appalling cesspit to match that on the other side of the Atlantic. One ridiculous “commentator” with more followers than sense suggested an MP should lose his job simply for one vote (and a vote, note well, which did not counter his party’s manifesto under which he was elected).

Yet two things happened yesterday. On one side of the Atlantic, in the most unlikely of places, a pro-choice Democrat appealing for cross-community support came from nowhere to unseat a xenophobic, racist Republican incumbent. On the other side, a Parliamentary vote ensured it would be Members of Parliament, not incompetent lazy Ministers, who “take back control”.

It was close, but decency and democracy won in each case. Politics is all about momentum. There is hope yet…

Did tweet block UK-EU deal?

An interesting and quite compelling notion was put forward by a former DUP Chief of Staff over the past 24 hours that it was a tweet by an RTÉ reporter which “derailed” the UK-EU deal on the Irish border and thus the prospects of moving to the next stage.

I suspect there is an element of truth to that.

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That was the actual text of the deal.

Yet the suggestion which flew about like wildfire on social media was in fact that the UK was about to agree that Northern Ireland would remain in the Single Market and the Customs Union. This derived from an RTÉ reporter’s tweet which did not quite say that but, in an era where people want quick (even if quick means inaccurate) news and where, I fear, concepts such as the “Customs Union” and “Single Market” are not well understood, was deemed to have implied it.

Clearly there was no way the DUP could sign up to anything even approaching this – and in fact no one was asking them to. But even the remote appearance of doing so would be electorally damaging, and there is nothing to which the DUP is more acutely sensitive than electoral damage.

To be clear about what was actually going on… the 1998 “Good Friday” Agreement is in fact an international treaty between the UK and Ireland. What this deal is clearly designed to recognise is that common North-South regulations are required in areas identified in that Agreement/Treaty (e.g. animal safety) and indeed in areas where there is obviously pre-existing cooperation not specifically identified (e.g. sport), and that because the Ireland (the state) is in the EU this in practice means the UK will have to ensure there is alignment with the Single Market and the Customs Union (whose rules Ireland is obliged to follow as an EU member). The UK was in effect merely clarifying that it would take the necessary steps to adhere to the Treaty even if there were no further deal with the EU on other matters. Such a clarification was all Ireland needed to agree that the border issue was at least being taken seriously, and thus that talks could proceed to the future relationship including a trade deal. Hence the genuine all-round astonishment that there was any issue with the text.

Nevertheless, we live in an era of “quick but inaccurate”. We write and speak quickly but rarely take time to think. Whether in this specific case it is really true that the DUP was spooked by the headline, it is certainly true that the “quick but inaccurate” era is making government and perhaps even democracy itself decidedly more difficult.

 

Has Liberalism eaten itself?

I have been wanting to write a post along the lines of this one by former Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron for some time.

What do you think?!

UK desperately needs to improve productivity to avoid another crash

It is a sign of the times that the Chancellor’s announcement that the UK’s deficit would not now be cleared until 2031 was scarcely mentioned after the Budget yesterday. Yet it is astonishing. The Conservatives were elected in 2010 on a pledge to remove the deficit by 2015. They then delayed this to 2020. Now they are adding a full decade and some. It is hard to believe Labour would have done any worse.

Let us again be clear also that we are merely talking about the deficit, not the debt. The deficit is the amount by which the debt rises. So the debt is soaring to almost unthinkable levels already; that the deficit will not be closed for another fourteen years defies credibility.

The UK Government has tried to reduce the deficit by reducing public spending but, as any business or even household will tell you, it is always easier to clear deficits and debts by raising revenue rather than reducing outgoings. Raising revenue means raising taxes. Or does it?

All other things being equal, raisng revenue does mean raising taxes. Yet in fact there is another way – raising productivity would mean that the amount of revenue raised even from the current tax base with people working current hours would be increased. Since the UK lags at the bottom of Western productivity levels, this increase could be quite dramatic if the UK even moved towards the OECD average.

We are now at the stage, however, where this is a must. Few in the UK are unemployed but many are underemployed. This situation is only worsening as it is masked by headline figures. It is a serious issue, however, because debt levels are unsustainable and can only mean another crash is imminent. Car financing, for example, is now totally out of control; in the South of England and the Channel Islands property prices are simply ludicrous to the extent that they must crash some time; and household debt continues to rise as consumerism (rather than productivity) keeps the economy from stalling completely.

In other words, the UK has to raise productivity now, or it faces another crash. (And all this is regardless of the consequences of Brexit, which will plainly not help.)

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