Category Archives: Politics

Unionists need to realise what suits England does not suit NI

It was the shrug of the shoulders as David Davis said the agriculture industry would now face tariffs of at least 40% which worried me. The fact was, after all, already known to those (albeit seemingly a minority) who had been paying attention.

The agrifood industry is perhaps Northern Ireland’s most successful and important sector. The fact is it often competes with or indeed cooperates with the Republic of Ireland’s. Now, the Republic of Ireland’s industry will have access to the European Single Market with no tariffs applied, and Northern Ireland’s will face tariffs of 40%+. I will leave it to readers work out whether that is good news for the Northern Ireland economy…

But it was already known. Frankly, Northern Ireland’s agrifood industry should have been far more outspoken before 23 June, but it was running scared of the DUP. There is no saving it from here – there is no precedent even for special arrangements (such as Norway’s) to allow anyone outside the Common Agricultural Policy tariff-free access to the Single Market within which that policy operates.

It is too late to recover the damage, although it would still do no harm to point out it was DUP policy to inflict that damage on Northern Ireland’s economy and on its rural community. One thing we should do is learn from it.

So just by the way, David Davis’ shrug of the shoulders should tell us something fairly obvious – what suits England does not always suit Northern Ireland. The DUP is now getting very excited about the prospects for future trade deals – but at least now let us learn the lesson. A trade deal which suits England (and is therefore entered into by the UK) will not always suit Northern Ireland.

Frankly, I rate the UK’s chances of trade deals as extremely low. I can think of only one which is likely – New Zealand. What would such a trade deal consist of? Well, how about exchanging the UK’s financial know-how for New Zealand’s advanced agricultural products? Such a deal would make sense for England. But it would decimate Northern Ireland’s economy by inflicting on it competition on top of removing from it access to its key market.

Some people seriously need to wake up. And not just David Davis.

Does Sinn Féin want to govern?

Sinn Féin unquestionably had a good Assembly Election, not just because its vote rose and the gap between it and the DUP fell to just one seat, but because its decision to have the election cost it just one incumbent and enabled new (predominantly youthful, female) MLAs to be elected top of the poll.

Electorally, therefore, Sinn Féin has earned a solid mandate. That leaves an obvious problem, however – what does it want to do with it?

The party’s case, that Arlene Foster’s actions smacked at best of incompetence and that Paul Givan’s and others were pure disrespect, was not without merit and the (Nationalist) electorate agreed. But what does a solution to this look like?

The question, ultimately, is simple. Does Sinn Féin want to govern?

The answer to this question, as it knows, will be watched across the island of Ireland. Until now, instability has generally suited Sinn Féin and, perhaps partly because success breeds success, it now lies second in the polls in the Republic of Ireland ahead of Fine Gael.

Ultimately, however, voters are not in the current global context in the mood for further instability. Brexit, Trump, ScotRef and everything else are quite enough, and the experience of the Troika and the Irish property meltdown is raw. If candidates wish to be taken seriously as governing parties in Dublin, they may have to offer change but they will definitely have to offer stability.

Therefore, while many things are falling its way, Sinn Féin too is at a crossroads. Does it actually wish to govern? Because it is not just the Secretary of State who is capable of “waffle”!

#Brexit farce runs out of control

The vote for the UK to leave the EU with no plan in place was the single biggest act of economic and political sabotage any country has brought upon itself.

The blame rests not with those who voted for it – there were grounds of national sovereignty upon which the case could be made for the UK to become politically clearly distinct from the EU – but on the callous leaders of the Leave campaign who argued their case without any notion of how it could be delivered without becoming a constitutional and financial catastrophe.

The cost of this catastrophe is already being borne by the poorest, of course (those who rarely get much coverage in the media). As the cost of living (and particularly of fuel) rises, those on low and fixed incomes have nowhere to go. After all, it is no use the economy growing 2% if the cost of living is growing 2.8% – quite obviously, that leaves us all worse off, and particularly those reliant on minimum wage pay or benefits (which are not growing 2%).

On top of all of this, we now have the added constitutional uncertainty and wrangle of potential Scottish independence – the threat of which was seen off in 2014 until people voted for a Brexit Fantasyland which was never ever on offer.

Let us remember it clearly: “They need us more than we need them” cried the Brexiteers. Now they face the very real prospect of leaving the EU without a deal and without a quarter of their territory.

Take back control? This is out of control.

By the way, stricter immigration controls are perfectly possible within the EU. So is it not time to accept that the whole thing is folly and end this farce, for the sake of our economy and our unity?

Health Transformation must not be hindered by Executive omnishambles

By Paula Bradshaw, outgoing MLA for South Belfast and Health Committee member 2016-17.

A frustration of this election campaign, like so many others, is that parties have sought to make it about things other than those which matter to people’s daily lives – jobs, education, health and so on. Those are in fact the areas of policy upon which the Executive makes decisions and where Assembly members can make a real difference – yet for reasons best known to themselves, the outgoing Executive parties have largely chosen to ignore them.

Making a real difference is why I got involved in politics. One of my first moves as an MLA in the Assembly was to present a petition of equal access to cancer drugs; my last act of the term was to meet the Minister and be informed that indeed a consultation was being set up to enable the complex administrative changes to take place so that equal access to cancer drugs could become a reality. I am a results person and I was delighted by this outcome.

Over my time on the Health Committee I was able also to ensure that there would be access to other drugs previously denied to us in Northern Ireland such as nivumulab; I was able to raise the profile of conditions which do not have a large lobby presence here such as ME; and I was successful in pushing for an inquiry to ensure Allied Health Professionals are more prominent in the process of Health and Social Care Transformation.

I was therefore utterly appalled that the Executive fell, for no good reason whatsoever. No politician should ever put their own interests ahead of the greater good, especially at such a key period in Health and Social Care reform (as well as tackling education gridlock, planning for Brexit and everything else). I was even more appalled that it fell without a Budget (due last year) and without a comprehensive overall Health Reform plan.

It is clear that institutional reform is required, otherwise the system would not have collapsed after only eight months; it is also clear that we need different political leaders determined to make the institutions work for all the people, not just for themselves and a select few. But, to be clear, I and my Alliance colleagues are seeking re-election to make it work and to get back to work.

I would dearly love to get back to work on the Health Committee too, where we had by and large put partisan priorities aside. However, Reform is a complex process and it is not enough simply to say it must proceed. The process will require significant financial investment; it will require the recruitment of change management expertise; and it will require highly competent risk management procedures. Nor is it good enough merely to consult on criteria or to produce one-year plans; an overall ten-year reform plan is necessary, with clarity about how success will be assessed and how failure will be countered. Such a complex process is no place for populists; it will be challenging and it requires political and administrative leaders prepared to meet the challenge.

I trust, therefore, that on 2 March the people of Northern Ireland will turn out to vote, and that they will reject the petty divisive populism of the past and instead return to Stormont people who want to get things done. That is the choice before us!

NI Civil Service must review Audit procedures

This blog post clearly did not convey the intended message with anything like sufficient clarity, so I will simply let the two comments below stand (as they do a much better job of making the point I was trying to make!)

There is no reason anyone would have been negatively affected by it, but sincere apologies for any misunderstanding, the responsibility for which (as ever in my publications) is entirely mine. 

How about just abolishing First Minister?

As I explained here, the role of First Minister and deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland is nothing like as important or powerful in practice as it sounds. Whereas the First Minister in Scotland and now in Wales has a Director’s role, the First and deputy First Ministers in Northern Ireland remain merely Chairs. Even their Ministerial functions, shared rather ludicrously with two extra Junior Ministers with no fewer than eight “Special Advisers”, apply only to the tiny Executive Office.

In fact, for all the fuss made about who is First and who is deputy First, the craziest thing is that the role may not even be necessary at all.

It would be quite possible simply to remove the office from the relevant legislation. An Executive would proceed to be formed, and then the largest parties in each designation in the Executive could simply nominate one of their Ministers their “Senior Minister”, who would perhaps receive a small additional allowance to perform the role of joint Chair of the Executive and whatever representative functions arise. In fact, it would be quite possible for this role to rotate around the Ministers over an Assembly term.

This would have three happy consequences: it would remove the expense which currently comes with such an unnecessary role (no specific extra Ministerial salaries; no Special Advisers; no Junior Ministers); it would remove the delusions of grandeur which have led to its being performed so abysmally; and it would remove the whole issue from Assembly Election campaigns, allowing the focus to be on competence and policy where it should be.

Indeed, you would wonder at anyone opposing this idea…

DUP’s unbiblical Fantasyland

There is no border control between Norway and Sweden“, “the Great Britain legislation was the same as the Northern Ireland legislation” and “the RHI scheme [without cost controls] was passed by the whole Executive” are just three outright lies told by one DUP MP in recent months.

There will be no public inquiry” said one Lagan Valley MLA, only for another Lagan Valley MLA to say there had been “no U-turn” when the DUP decided it did want one after all.

Due to efficiency savings, it has not been possible to renew Líofa funding” read one DUP Minister’s press statement, removing £50,000 not only to find it again 10 days later, but also to find another £10.1 million to do up community halls predominantly used by his party’s supporters, do up a town centre in his own constituency, and do up a town centre in his party leader’s constituency.

[Our SpAd] has no personal interest in the poultry industry. His family home farm has chicken houses but [they] are not part of the RHI scheme” read a DUP party statement the day before it became apparent that in fact his wife’s home farm does indeed have an interest in the form of two RHI boilers.

Do not steal; do not lie; do not deceive one another” – so reads Leviticus 19:11.

The Lord detests lying lips, but he delights in people who are trustworthy” – so we are told in Proverbs 12:22.

1 Timothy 4:2 warns specifically of “hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron“.

There is nothing as grotesquely unbiblical as the outright lies and deceptions stated above by DUP MPs, MLAs, Ministers and Press Officers – the same people who then, incredibly, dare to invoke the Holy Book to justify everything from arch social conservatism to outright discrimination.

What is perhaps interesting is that they are not even good lies. It is not like any serious attempt will be made to deny that they are lies. In fact, this is the mark of an addict – DUP representatives lie not because they will get away with it, but because they are simply addicted to it.

In DUP world, as in UKIP world and Trump world, the truth in fact has no value at all. They live in a Fantasyland of their own creation, and then simply state the fantasy as if it is the truth. When someone comes along and points out the truth, they are cast aside as not a true believer, an enemy within, or some other deviant.

On 2 March, let us hope the “hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron” face the harsh judgement from the voters they deserve. Perhaps then they can examine their own conscience clause. After all, the only thing worse than a liar is a hypocrite.

What comes after #AE17?

During the campaign, if there is one, I do not intend to post further on political opinion until eve of poll, but will occasionally post on matters of political structure and likely political (not electoral) outcomes.

3 March 2017. After the “brutal” election campaign, the DUP and Sinn Féin have been returned as the largest parties in their respective designation, and have a majority of the 90 Assembly seats between them. There are three weeks to get a functioning Executive up and running.

What next?

It is essential we are realistic about the answer to this question. Forget the #StormontIWant hashtag, what happens next will be based on what suits the DUP and Sinn Féin.

I would guess two things would go a long way to helping re-establish the institutions in that eventuality:

  • an “arrangement” around the Petition of Concern (an initial review of its operation plus perhaps some agreement not to use it in certain areas apparently in line with “A Fresh Start”) – this would enable at least some of the issues in Mr McGuinness’s resignation letter to be dealt with while also moving in the direction of stated DUP policy; and
  • a commitment from the UK Government urgently to introduce an Irish Language Act (which would take the form of placing a duty on public authorities to ensure respect for the language at all times, maintenance of Charter obligations, and certain other rights particularly in education) – this would cover this St Andrews obligation and secure the respect agenda, but would enable the DUP not to have to legislate.

Although there would be other things to iron out (like a Justice Minister, the speed of the “RHI Inquiry” and, not least, damaged personal relationships), such an agreement would at the very least make it difficult for either party to justify the continuing and worsening instability of a second election.

Of course, such a deal could be done NOW, so it may not be so easy.

3 March 2017. After a “brutal” election campaign in which it became apparent that both Executive parties are guilty of appalling financial mismanagement (RHI meet Welfare Reform delay; dodgy office costs meet inactive cultural societies; community hall grants meet agricultural subsidy blunders; United Airlines meet Ballykelly relocation; NAMA meet, well, NAMA… oh, and they don’t seem to have fallen out over SIF, funnily), the DUP and Sinn Féin are returned as largest parties in their respective designations but weakened so that they no longer command an overall majority between them. 

What next?

Noting that they, the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP do have a narrow majority, the Alliance Party proposes (via a combination of its 1988 Governing With Consent and 2004 Agenda for Democracy documents) that the three parties clearly could form a power-sharing Executive which would command a majority in the Assembly. It would clearly be a nonsense not to proceed on that basis.

Initially by changing the time limit for appointment of First and deputy First Minister to 28 days rather than 14, the Secretary of State has time to introduce emergency legislation making the Executive a separate institution from the Assembly (as in Scotland and Wales) and allowing him, in practice in consultation with the Government of Ireland as a fellow guarantor of the Agreement, to nominate a full Executive consisting of all three designations which may then be approved as a whole by simple majority in the Assembly.

That is what should happen. Remember, if this unnecessary election does come pass, YOU decide…

That issue of “Parity”

There remains some confusion as to quite why the Renewable Heat Incentive ended up being financed as it was.

Necessarily, this is a somewhat simplified explanation.

Essentially, there are two types of public spending in the UK – that falling under “Departmental Expenditure Limits” (budgeted, in other words) and that falling under “Annually Managed Expenditure” (estimated, in other words). [The former is also split between “capital” and “revenue” spending, but that is not relevant here.]

Education, for example, is budgeted – a budget is set for the financial year (or financial years) and that is deemed the Departmental Expenditure Limit.

Welfare, for example, can only be estimated – it depends ultimately on how many claimants there are. A marked economic decline (as, for example, in 2008/9) can mean the amount required goes up swiftly and otherwise unpredictably. This, therefore, has to be “annually managed”.

In the case of DEL expenditure, because it can be budgeted, the UK Treasury allocates the money for “geographically identifiable issues” (health, education, infrastructure) to each devolved Finance Department in advance. In the case of AME, however, the UK Treasury pays (albeit via a local Department) as the expenditure is accrued.

However, “parity” applies. This is the concept that the UK Government will cover all spending (whether DEL or AME) on the same basis, provided no part of the UK seeks an advantage either by changing main taxation or by changing policy in an area funded under AME. Where such a change is made by a devolved Government or Department, any extra expenditure must be paid from its own devolved Budget. As is well known, that is the issue with corporation tax and welfare reform.

Schemes encouraging a particular behaviour, for example the use of renewable heat, would fall under the latter – as you do not really know how many claimants there will be, you cannot put in place a “budget” as such. The idea is, provided the scheme is properly managed, that it will reap long-term benefits (though, say, improved energy efficiency, or improved public health due to lower pollution or cleaner power).

That is why, when you operate such a scheme without being able to budget, you implement appropriate cost controls and annual reviews. With regards to a Renewable Heat Incentive scheme, it would therefore be the height of lunacy in Northern Ireland to remove cost controls from the model legislation and not ensure annual reviews were implemented. Not least since it thus renders and policy different and breaches parity, and thus it falls to the people of Northern Ireland to pick up the tab, which was the whole reason we had to implement welfare reform after all…

Business has to think again about NI political preferences

A few months ago I appeared on Nolan to argue that the retail sector can only go so far in delivering jobs and growth, and that the focus needs to shift somewhat towards real exports. Understandably there was an opposite number from the retail sector arguing his case – but then, rather less understandably, he went on to heap praise on the DUP/SF Executive (in a kind of ‘I haven’t always agreed with them in the past but now they’re wonderful’ way).

It continued to be striking subsequently how few organisations, particularly though not exclusively in business, would dare criticise the Executive after it was formed in late May. Private conversations sometimes revealed some wariness, but this was always followed by a ‘But you have to understand…’

Well no actually I don’t have to understand. For example, all business organisations who polled their members found them majority opposed to Brexit in Northern Ireland (this went as high as 81% in one case), yet in the face of the DUP no outright campaigning was to be seen at all. ‘Ah but corporation tax…’

Ah but nothing. Left to its own devices the simple fact is, by a selfish determination to protect its Leader at all costs and a distinct lack of grace towards others, ‘Arlene’s candidates’ have taken just eight months to deliver catastrophic instability – at just the very time business (including retail) could not afford it.

Business organisations have a stake in Northern Ireland and now they must finally find a voice. The unstable situation brought on by the current Executive is intolerable; businesspeople have a vote; and they must use that vote to punish those who brought it about.

After all, that’s how democracy is supposed to work.