Category Archives: Politics

Government interventions fuel wrong decisions

The problem with government intervention is it can be horribly wrong. Governments are, frankly, no more likely than anyone else to pick out sensible evidence over dud nonsense.

That, at least, is one obvious conclusion from the Volkswagen diesel scandal – even leaving aside the fact that Volkswagen itself is partly owned by a State Government (that of Lower Saxony).

A side issue in the scandal, but a serious issue generally, is that the whole reason Volkswagen cheated was that it was trying to rush “clean diesel” to market, when no such thing (yet) exists. This is, in the immediacy, a disaster for Volkswagen. But it is also a black eye for governments across Europe.

Because it turns out diesel is no cleaner than petrol anyway. Governments across Europe, particularly on the Continent, had taxed diesel fuel at lower rates and in at least two cases (Belgium and Spain) actually applied a lower tax on the purchase of diesel cars all in the belief that they were cleaner and healthier. They’re not. They got it completely wrong.

Europe will now pay the price. The really clean technology comes in the form of full electric or hybrid cars (which generally use petrol, but much less of it), in which US and Japanese manufacturers invested heavily while the Europeans were messing about with filthy diesel because their governments thought it was a good  idea. This means that Europeans have caused environmental damage while their manufacturers have been left behind – to the extent they have been forced to cheat blatantly to try to keep up with the “clean” image customers rightly demand.

This was, fundamentally, a disastrous case of government intervention gone wrong. Meanwhile, the rest of the world forged ahead. The free market isn’t always right – but it is sometimes…

Sinn Féin confirms support for partition

Perhaps the biggest recent election in Europe was not in Greece, but in Catalonia.

Support is rising in Catalonia for partition. Not only should Spain be partitioned as the more businesslike and culturally distinct northeastern Catalonia Region seeks independence, but even the Catalan Lands themselves should be split, with Valencia and the Balearics left joined with Spain.

One cannot help but draw parallels 100 years on almost exactly from a similar partition not just of Ireland but of the province of Ulster, with Monaghan and Donegal (and Cavan as of 1613) separated from the rest of Ulster to remain joined to the Irish Free State.

So the Catalan case is strikingly similar to the specifically Ulster Unionist case 100 years ago, right down to accepting a split in the Catalan Lands if it comes to it. (I have some sympathy myself, though I must say my instinctive preference would be to try a properly federal Spain first, just as it is for a properly federal UK.)

Which does make one wonder, just a little, why that Catalan case is so strongly backed by Sinn Féin. Turns out partition of a longstanding single state and obvious geographical unit is right after all?

What does Conservative dominance mean for Northern Ireland?

From ScopeNI


The election of Jeremy Corbyn as Leader of the Opposition has drawn parallels with the election to the same post fourteen years ago of a certain Iain Duncan Smith. As the voluntary sector in particular determines how to manage its policy work over the coming years, this is a curious parallel which is worth exploring.

This exploration will show that Mr Duncan Smith’s policies will be pursued, whether or not he himself retains office. Any uncertainty there is will arise from economics, not politics – but it is hardly likely to favour the Left. This all adds up to this autumn being the best time to seek a compromise on welfare and spending for Northern Ireland.


It was already the case that the general sentiment at Westminster in response to the Conservatives’ surprise outright victory in May was not only that they now have a working majority, but also that it was highly likely they would go on to win the 2020 election too. It is this, more than anything, which explains the rise of Mr Corbyn. His supporters will wax lyrical about him and his policy stances – but few will seriously argue he would win a General Election. Essentially, the Labour Party has decided that if it is going to lose the next election, it may as well do so from the comfort of the left lane rather than competing with the traffic in the centre.

The challenge for policy officers and others is to distinguish between what they want to happen on one hand, and what they think will happen on the other. The latter should lead them to conclude that it is in fact Mr Duncan Smith who will probably have the greater say on public policy in the coming years – possibly until well after Mr Corbyn has been deposed (possibly pre-election, just as he was).


Mr Duncan Smith’s personal role in future is, however, perhaps harder to predict that Mr Corbyn’s. Mid-term, an attempt was made, thought to be led by George Osborne, to remove him from the welfare brief. He retained it then, and through the May election, partly because he does have significant allies on the back benches. However, it is no certainty that he will survive to 2020.

In the summer after the 2010 General Election Philippa Stroud, the Director of the Centre for Social Justice (the think tank Mr Duncan Smith founded after he lost the Leadership, and the source of around 80% of the policy research behind his welfare reform programme), was appointed Special Adviser at the Department for Work and Pensions to work alongside Mr Duncan Smith as Secretary of State. In the summer after this year’s election the think tank’s Director, Christian Guy, was also appointed Special Adviser – but this time directly to the Prime Minister.

This is surely interesting, but it is not yet quite clear why! It could be read as a full expression of support for Mr Duncan Smith’s programme, for the think tank he founded, and for him personally. However, it could also mean the opposite: this could be preparation for the maintenance of the welfare reform programme, directed from the top, without him. Although there is no particular political reason to remove him, a series of blunders (most notably the ludicrous use in August of made-up quotes and actors to promote the merit of sanctions) are beginning to render him toxic even to potential supporters of reform in general.


One thing is clear, however. The Conservatives regard their victory – the first time an incumbent Prime Minister had gained ground both in terms of seats and vote since 1895 – as a mandate to continue their programme of “tackling the deficit” (or “austerity” as some label it) while “reforming welfare” (or “cutting benefits”). They are probably right to. Even though this seems an anathema to those in certain echo chambers, reforming welfare is generally a very popular policy (including in Northern Ireland).

Politically, there is no realistic hope for a change of course – making resolution of the welfare/budget crisis in Northern Ireland extremely difficult. All political and economic things being equal, the Conservatives will simply increase their majority in 2020 as Labour implodes and England moves further to the low-tax right in response to Scotland apparently moving to the high-spending left (entirely in line with what happened in similar circumstances in recent decades in Canada and Belgium, lest anyone doubt it).

Of course, all economic things are not, in fact, equal. The relative prosperity of the years up to 2007, and again (at least in most of the UK) since around 2013, has primarily been based not on who was in government, but on the astonishing growth of China, and resulting low product prices. With that growth slowing, economic turbulence is likely by the end of the decade – and that inevitably also means political unpredictability. However, lest opponents of “austerity” and “benefits cuts” think this a good thing, the tendency is for people to shift further right to protect what they have when there is less to go around (after all, this explains the Centre Left’s generally poor performance across Europe since 2008).


Therefore, for us in Northern Ireland, the time to seek compromise on welfare and spending is surely now.

On welfare, it remains the case that certain forms of “mitigation” are on the table (policies such as the “Bedroom Tax” by no means command universal support even among the Conservative back benches). On spending, there remain significant potential flexibilities (though they require some recognition of the political reality that the Treasury’s room for manoeuvre will be limited for as long as Northern Ireland’s household taxes remain significant lower and giveaways such as concessionary fares significantly more generous).

Civic Society, particularly the Third Sector perhaps, needs to consider what it can best do to recognise the likely political context of the second half of the decade, and what it can then do to influence better outcomes immediately. In other words, it is time to make the most of a crisis.

If devolved nations haven’t enough to spend, they should raise it themselves

The three “Celtic” Finance Ministers are perfectly at liberty to work together (indeed, they should) and to oppose UK Government policy in an open manner (as they have, for example, here). This does raise two other problems, however.

Firstly, in a set-up where the vast majority of the overall budget setting is done at a “federal” level, there is a clear advantage for devolved parties to move “left” on financial matters because they can always blame someone else. They might consider, however, that this advantage is reversed at “federal” level where they begin to look irresponsible. An inevitable outcome, in a lopsided or consociational devolved system, is that the “centre” (say England in the UK, or even Flanders in Belgium) moves semi-permanently “right”, and the “regions” (say Scotland or Wallonia) move “left”, putting the whole future of the federation itself at risk. In other words, it is easy to be “left” if you do not have to raise your own revenue; and arguably somewhat easy to be “right” if the emphasis is on tax levels and apparently lucky outlying regions.

Secondly, however, the media are allowing the devolved regions away with the implication that they cannot affect the level of public spending (or, put another way, raise taxes). Actually, if they think the level of public spending they have is too low, they are perfectly free to raise revenue from within their own jurisdiction.

The obvious example is that the SNP (and previously Labour) had the power to raise the basic rate of income tax either way by three points. They also have power over the rate of household taxes at local level. (This is before we get to giveaways like free personal care or no tuition fees which are not enjoyed elsewhere, but which do in effect reduce their spending levels on other things.)

Most markedly hypocritical is, of course, the DUP. The DUP opposes any further revenue raising (except taxing the sick by charging for prescriptions), yet also believes that public spending levels are too low. Those cannot both reasonably be said to be true, not least since DUP Finance Ministers have already maxed out borrowing for infrastructure. If the DUP really believes, as it says in the letter, that public spending in Northern Ireland is too low, it could easily introduce water charges, advocate increased tuition fees, put up the Regional Rate to match GB Council Tax levels and so on; it could also stop Northern Ireland having the most generous concessionary fare scheme on public transport and such like, and that is before the millions we waste on segregation and other general inefficiency (like training teachers we don’t need in a segregated environment).

In the end, the quality of devolved government suffers because too much time is wasted on shirking the blame for one’s own inefficiencies and unwillingness to raise taxes. This is yet another reason that tax powers should be devolved as quickly and as far as possible – at devolved level, the “right” should be able to make the case for efficiency and low tax; and at “federal” level the “left” should be able to make the case for higher overall spending and the value of fair (if higher) taxation.

In the end we cannot escape reality: if we want more public spending here, we will have to raise more tax here. Only once we deal in that reality can we have a proper debate.

Left needs to stop moralising, and get practical

Well I think what we need to do as a society is…”

Beware anyone who starts a sentence like that. It will inevitably be practically meaningless. Who precisely needs to do what?

Typically, the speaker will be a politician of the left. What they are doing is moralising, not delivering in practice. It is at best woolly, and at worst arrogant.

This is what is happening across Europe. The populist rise is at the expense of the left, not the right, because in an economic emergency people simply do not need moralising. They need practical ideas and clear routes to deliver them.

The current implosion of the British Labour Party is perhaps best seen in that context. It is, of course, a particularly incredible example – the party has elected a Leader (mind, polls have been wrong before) whose entire campaign has consisted of trashing the last Labour Prime Minister and the legacy of his and his successor’s entire 13-year term in office. Through their moralising (and broader, crazed, blame game), they are actually telling people they were no good in government. It defies belief.

What is lacking is a serious analysis of what the country’s (and the world’s) general problems are and what can practically be done to address them. The Conservatives had that analysis, whether one accepts it or not – that society was broken, that one big reason was government debt, that another was the benefits system, and that what was needed was to free up schools, bring spending back under control, and reform welfare. What is Labour’s analysis, beyond that they don’t like “Tories” very much at a moral level (and “Tories” include Tony Blair and probably Andy Burnham)?

Ultimately the only purpose served by this moralising is to make the moraliser feel good about themselves. It does not help anyone in any practical way. It has no real purpose.

It is time to stop moralising, stop talking about what others should or should not do, and to stop accusing anyone outside a narrow social circle of being the enemy. The centre left must come up with its own analysis, and its own practical route to tackle the problems identified in that analysis. Otherwise, it will find no one is listening.

Heenan-Anderson shows it is impossible to govern without clear direction

Unfortunately I missed the launch of the Heenan-Anderson Commission report, but they were kind enough to contact me in advance given I had done something very similar almost exactly five years before (admittedly with the difference that the then Opposition had come to power, whereas the current Opposition now seems a million miles from it).

The authors openly admit that the story of the report is there is very little new in it. In fact, it disagrees in no way with mine five years ago, or with Paul Nolan’s monitoring reports, or with anything else. For me, however, the story it tells is of a government in Northern Ireland – and by “government” I include the civil service and bureaucracy – which is utterly lacking in direction.

In fact, fully a quarter of the recommendations relate (although these are my words) to that lack of direction. Politicians and civil servants alike are able to tell you how much they have spent on something, but they have absolutely no idea how to measure the outcomes. This is not just about “value for money”, it is about the fact that our administration has no idea whatsoever whether the interventions it busies itself with work. Is that not completely ludicrous?

Indeed, it is quite obvious that the interventions they make in terms of tackling poverty do not work, as I myself wrote five years ago. Partly, of course, this is because we cling to an over-complex and fundamentally flawed welfare system which suits the vested interests but no one else. More than that, however, it is because our interventions are not targeted; they take place at the wrong age (they are required far earlier); and they are designed with absolutely no understanding even of the basic objective. Put simply, public policy in Northern Ireland is lazily designed to compensate people for living in poverty, rather than to help them out of it.

If you do not believe me, go and look up the ten “most deprived” areas of Northern Ireland in 1994. Now look them up in 2014, a full peace-dividend generation later. If our interventions were actually working…

The fundamental, underlying problem is that government here – again, in the broadest sense – has no idea what it is working towards. The Health and Social Care Board, for example, merely seeks to “ensure improvement in health and wellbeing within available resources” – not exactly Churchilian stuff. Of course, the current administration’s first Programme for Government was meekly entitled “A Better Future”, as if any government would plan a worse one! Arguably, however, that is still better than one OFMDFM programme entitled “Delivering Social Change”, with no idea given as to why it is for government rather than civic society to do this and what the change is (even if it is good or bad). No wonder morale is rock bottom among our public servants – they go into work with no clear sense of purpose.

More than a anything else at all, we in Northern Ireland need to set ourselves clear goals – that is the route to happiness, after all.

I believe an idea I suggested was mentioned at the launch: we should set ourselves the goal, by 2040, of having a life expectancy in Northern Ireland which would rank among the top ten sovereign states in the world. That alone would set clear objectives not just for Health, but also in education (where there would be a renewed focus on healthy living), in social policy (where there would be a renewed focus on ensuring we stop sudden deaths, such as road fatalities), and in environmental policy (where we would have a health imperative to encourage urban public transport use, for example). Inevitably, it would see inequality tackled as the quickest way to raise life expectancy quickly would be to raise it where it is currently lowest (and has been for decades). It would also pass a degree of responsibility on to the individual citizen – as is normal in any high-functioning civic society – to live healthily but also to take an interest in government interventions and to demand to see, clearly, which interventions are working and which are not.

How’s that for clear direction? Now all we need are new political and civic leaders willing to take on the vested interests and be aspirational. We can do that, or have the same report again in five years – I know which I prefer.


Refugee Crisis should top Stormont agenda

I haven’t written much about the Refugee Crisis because, frankly, it angers me immensely and it is difficult to write in any way reasonably about it.

Theresa May’s comments on the subject, in particular, are an outrage. They are nasty, unsympathetic, and of course factually and morally completely wrong.

A less commented upon feature of all this has been the disgraceful response of Irish politicians. Ireland takes fewer refugees than any other country, and has taken fewer per capita than just about anywhere comparable. The total absence of urgency to help – on the part not just of government but also of opposition – has been genuinely shocking.

Here is the thing: the reason those politicians can get away with that is representative of the way a lot of people think. “Sure it’s terrible, but the main issue is stopping water charges…”

The political hypocrisy, in other words, represents a popular hypocrisy. We don’t want “migrants” living beside us; we don’t want them to drown; we also don’t want to intervene in their countries to stop crazed despotic lunatics driving them into the sea – literally. Each and every one of us (me included of course) is guilty somewhere along that line, and it ends up being a collective excuse to do nothing.

There is not much to write about this that has not been written elsewhere (although I have signed this).

However, one thing does occur to me: this issue, the biggest European humanitarian crisis this century, should be top of any legislative chamber’s agenda. Far from engaging in silly games or even wasting time on reports which are no longer relevant, our own Assembly should be preparing assistance. That could come in the form of planning to take a certain number of refugees; allocating Social Investment Fund money to assist; or even simply offering security and administrative assistance to help with applications.

On the island of Ireland in particular, we like to think of ourselves as caring, friendly, hospitable people. Yet, as usual, in both jurisdictions, we are obsessed with ourselves and ignorant of the wider world. It will not even have occurred to anyone to offer practical assistance.

Imagine what a Northern Ireland Assembly motion, unanimously passed, saying we will take 10,000 refugees (or however many; Germany, proportionately, is assessing 22,000) in Northern Ireland, would do to the debate!

But ah no, let’s just wait for everyone else to do things while we just moan.

Test failed. Catastrophically.

Parties need to deprive DUP/SF of seats

Any outcome is possible, but the likeliest outcome of the current omnishambles at Stormont is an early (dark-night) election.

Any outcome is possible there too, but the likeliest is that we will get “as you were”.

“As you were” is, of course, the last thing we need. It will already be problematic getting good new faces, as who would risk a career currently to risk entering a thoroughly unstable Assembly? Then, to make matters worse, the party line-ups will remain largely unchanged, in terms both of senior figures and Assembly/Executive numbers. Since the “crisis” was caused by the current figures in the current numbers, it follows that “as you were” will merely deliver more “crisis”.

As an electorate we must be very, very clear. With nearly two thirds of all Assembly seats between them, and the capacity (directly or indirectly) to block anything with a Petition of Concern, the DUP and Sinn Féin are absolutely responsible for the gridlock and financial mismanagement which has characterised the last five years. Other parties, even taken together, lack the numbers – if the DUP and Sinn Féin decide something will happen, it will happen; if either decides it won’t, it won’t. It is for the voters to stop this being the case.

So it is not good enough simply to blame all politicians equally. Perhaps the UUP/SDLP/Alliance would do no better, but they would surely be worth a try over the DUP/SF farce. So the task, indisputably, is to move away from “as you were” as much as possible. However, realistically, there are limitations to what can be achieved, and no single party can do it alone.

There is an inevitable consequence of all this: anti-DUP/SF parties need to work together as much as possible.

A coherent (albeit, on the Unionist side, highly optimistic) objective would be to deprive either party of 30 seats, thus stopping them using the Petition of Concern. As optimistic, but there is no reason not to aim high, would be to stop a DUP/SF overall majority. Neither is a likely outcome, but even moving markedly towards that objective would create clear momentum and send a clear message – improve performance, or you won’t be so lucky next time.

This will not happen, of course, for as long as the smaller parties consider only their own, narrow, electoral interests. There is a requirement for some sort of “coalition of the willing”. Is anyone “willing” to lead it?

A “quick dose of direct rule” is not an option

There seems to be a growing sense that the best option for Northern Ireland now is for a “quick dose of Direct Rule” to “sort things out” and then a restoration of devolution.

This is understandable – but very, very wrong. It cannot happen.

Firstly, it is simply ludicrous. You cannot have political stability if every time a difficult decision is required the government has to collapse for a few months to let someone else make it. The whole point of devolution is that decision making is in local hands – and not just the easy decisions!

Secondly, there are no legal means under which it can happen. The power simply to “suspend” the institutions was removed in 2006. The UK Government could in theory pass legislation to enable this, but it would be risky, requiring consultation with the Irish Government and leading potentially to a complete breakdown in relationships.

In other words, if the institutions “collapse” (because, immediately, Unionists are unprepared to work them), they will stay collapsed.

This is good news neither for Unionists nor for Nationalists. For Unionists, it makes Northern Ireland a clear exception in the UK – with Scotland, Wales and even English cities receiving more devolution, Northern Ireland would be opting for what is, frankly, colonial rule. For Nationalists, it means Conservative government and all that entails with regard to welfare and the budget – exactly what they have been trying to avoid.

We should be clear that, specifically, it is bad news for those seeking to put an end the “Republican” gangsterism. Let us remind ourselves that 13 murders in Northern Ireland in 2014 (few carried out by “Republicans” or any other “political” group) is better than 460 in 1972 (a majority by “Republicans”). We do need to move towards the goal where “Republicans”, like everyone else, accept that elections have winners and losers and no single group has a right to veto everything it does not like. However, straightforward exclusion only makes matters worse for people, not least those within communities where most self-identify as “Republican”, who are trying to ensure the case for a return to the “physical force tradition” does not gain ground. (The DUP is right, in fact, to accuse those who do not see that obvious point of “abdicating responsibility” and noting that the Ulster Unionists’ move “into Opposition” does nothing to achieve the stated objective of that move.)

Among the general public two things need to be understood about the practical real world of modern Northern Ireland. First, Direct Rule will mean better government in the short term but greater social instability, including violence, in the long term (noting that power-sharing devolution is the only form of government here whose legitimacy is not seriously contested by anyone). Second, Direct Rule cannot be implemented just for the short term.

Bearing those in mind, people just need to be careful what they wish for.

Ulster Unionists do right thing – for wrong reason

I had long advocated that, if the Ulster Unionists were unhappy with the governance arrangements in Northern Ireland or with their Executive colleagues, they should have the courage to leave and go into opposition.

Unfortunately, however, that is not what they did yesterday.

There are two types of politics – the politics of government, and the politics of elections. It is quite possible to take an interest in and be good at one, while being entirely uninterested in and hopeless at the other. Departure from the Executive should have been about the politics of government; but the Ulster Unionists made it about the politics of elections.

As I noted on Twitter immediately after the recent murder of Kevin McGuigan, we found out nothing in the aftermath that we did not know beforehand. Gangland murders by organised groups the same as those who were active in the Troubles – in the Shankill, in Belvoir and in the Markets – had been a regular (though, it has be said, comparatively rare) occurrence. Of course, these organisations all have certain links with certain politicians. However, each one of these murders including the most recent was condemned by all Executive parties (indeed, Mr McGuigan’s family were visited in the direct aftermath by the local Sinn Fein representative). So it is simply not credible for the Ulster Unionists to pretend they found out something this week that they did not know a month or a year ago.

Departure from the Executive should have been about the politics of government. The Ulster Unionists could, perfectly legitimately, have said that they had taken the summer to decide what to do – and, given the nonsensical position on welfare and the budget demonstrated that the structures (and perhaps even the parties operating them) were no longer fit for purpose, they had decided to force the issue of Opposition by forming one to give the voters a real choice. However, that is not what they said.

Instead, they made it clearly about the politics of elections. Their statement (and subsequent positions taken in interviews) give absolutely no demonstration whatsoever of how this move helps deliver results on the issues they claim to care about; nor is there even the remotest clarity about exactly what the NIO or other parties could or should do in order for the Ulster Unionists to return to the Executive (a long-term problem for them). The implicit notion that the they will return to the Executive once they are the largest party demonstrates this is a purely electoral manoeuvre. (It is a risky one, too – allowing “Republican” gangsters to dictate when a Unionist party leaves government can hardly work out well for Unionism.)

There is nothing wrong, by the way, with electoral manoeuvres, and while I accept much of the criticism of the Ulster Unionists, I think it is inaccurate to say they have endangered the institutions (and, even if they have, it will hardly be a vote loser given the way the public feel about them currently). What they have done, however, is missed a real opportunity to deliver on improving the way devolution works; in fact, they have done precisely the contrary, making themselves a total irrelevance to any (much needed) discussion about how the structures can be improved and inter-party relationships around the Executive table improved.

This does not mean the other parties have not been presented with a strategic problem, as was the intention. It is uncertain how they will respond, and how this will play electorally. However, it is hard to see how this move actually helps deliver anything other than uncertainty in practical terms – with welfare still gridlocked, education and health reforms going nowhere, and the global economy taking another buffering.

The Ulster Unionists, therefore, have made the right move – but for entirely the wrong reason. The results will not be pretty.


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