Category Archives: Politics

Solidarité – but with Beirut too

When three people were murdered in a terrorist atrocity in Boston, Twitter went in to meltdown. When 147 students were gunned down in Kenya in April, however, we just scrolled on.

This is something which is not completely irrational, but it should concern us.

"ISIS" also carried out a massacre in Lebanon at the weekend. Where were the Lebanese flags in our profile pics?

“ISIS” also carried out a massacre in Lebanon at the weekend. Where were the Lebanese flags in our profile pics?

Likewise, at the weekend Daesh (or “ISIS”) carried out attacks of unimaginable brutality in Paris and Beirut. The former got almost all the public attention.

This is understandable. More of us have visited Paris and were likely to know people currently in Paris than Beirut. Paris is also more like us – a Western city in an established democracy.

In the case of Paris, we in the West (many familiar with the city) were able to relate better to acts of inhumane brutality but also of astonishing kindness and heroism (and superb journalism too, not least by some of our own). We were genuinely shaken by such fear and terror so close to home in every sense. Of course we connected to it more closely than to the attacks in Lebanon.

However, it is also greatly disconcerting – or, at least, it should be. What we are saying really is either that we place an economic value on life (therefore people killed in the West are more important than people killed on the Developing World); or worse still that we care more about those who are like us. Or both. To emphasise: this is not irrational – but it matters.

The fundamental implication is that if we accept that we care more about those who are close to us or about those whose lives have economic value, we accept that social justice is impossible. Logically, we tell the rest of the world, even the best educated in poor countries, that in fact we do not care about them. They can burn hundreds at a time for all we care. How do we expect them to respond to that?

Worse, how does this notion that we care primarily about those who are like us play out even within our own homeland? Do we care more about those of the same class, or same locality, or same religion, or even same race? Is this not all on the spectrum somewhere? If so, we probably need to address it, at least to some extent.

To be clear, I had hardly noticed Kenya and I probably noted Beirut only because refugees from there were among my childhood friends. I am as guilty as anyone else. However, we do need to ask ourselves what the implications are of who we care about and who we don’t.

SDLP has run out of ideas

SDLP Leadership contender Colum Eastwood describes a “United Ireland” (code, by the way, for a “United Irish Republic with no constitutional connection to Great Britain”) as the “greatest idea that we have”.

In so doing, he sums up the SDLP’s pointlessness in AD 2015.

Indeed, when asked straight out how those unconvinced might be persuaded of this “great idea” on television last week, one of his own Assembly colleagues literally had nothing at all to say.

If it were a “great idea”, people would be converting to it; practical debate would rage about it; indeed, anyone would be able to see the value of it and make a case for it. None of that is the case.

In fact, across the island, in the short and medium term (even in the long term given the current financial reality), this “greatest idea that we have” is a minority interest among all groups in both jurisdictions on the island of Ireland.

What would be a “great idea” would be the development of a welfare system which actually helps people out of poverty rather than trapping them in it. What would be a “great idea” would be a health reform which focused on patients not bureaucracy. What would be a “great idea” would be an economic development policy which created real jobs in high-value, export-focused industries. Suggesting that the “greatest idea we have” is a long-term constitutional change which may never happen is completely out of touch with those whose real interests are living standards, health and jobs.

The Nationalist parties received a lower vote share and 40,000 fewer votes in May than they did in the last equivalent election pre-Agreement despite “favourable demographics” – and even of those, the SDLP received barely a third compared to three fifths less than two decades ago. It is hard to ignore the obvious conclusion that broadly Nationalist voters are growing tired of politicians with nothing to say to them on real-life issues, and who keep harping on about a long-term aspiration which they may share but which does not affect their lives right now.

Why – versus a decade or two decades ago – are fewer people voting? Why, even among those still voting, are fewer voting Nationalist? Why, even among those voting Nationalist, are fewer voting SDLP? I have not seen a single one of these questions posed. It is hard to find the right answers if you haven’t even bothered with the right questions.

What people need are “great ideas” on reducing poverty, improving health, and creating jobs. Given by its insistence of focusing on a long-term minority interest, the SDLP has run out of them.

Cross-border relations continue to improve – yes, really

Nolan has his faults, but his direct question to Irish Government Minister Jimmy Deenihan, as to whether the Republic could afford to take on Northern Ireland given its annual fiscal deficit of £9.8b, was a master stroke. As was the Minister’s response – straightforwardly and honestly he said “Well no, really”.

Over on Slugger this response was written off by some Nationalists as a mistake or even a setback for cross-border relations. It was neither. Straightforward confirmation that a “United Ireland” is not on the table in the short to medium term, and will never really be until Northern Ireland pays its way, was exactly what Northerners needed to hear. The task now is to make sure they heard.

Firstly, Unionists can no longer get away with raising the immediate notion that a certain course of action will herald a “United Ireland”. No course of action (apart from, ironically, the UK leaving the EU) could possibly lead to a “United Ireland” in any remotely foreseeable timeframe. There should be no more bogey man – it is time to play our part in the UK while maximising our relations and trade with our next-door neighbour.

Secondly, Nationalists need to get over the notion that being an economic basket case somehow makes a “United Ireland” inevitable. Actually, it makes it impossible. And, by the way, if their core argument is that partition leads to duplication of services, they can start leading by example and removing duplication within Northern Ireland itself – starting with pointlessly and expensively divided teacher training facilities. They may also care to note that their fellow citizens in the South do not think profit is a dirty word, do not think mass welfare is a serious economic strategy for the future, and do not believe in running government deficits. Bloody Tories the lot of them…

It has long been obvious to any rational thinker that the only short and medium term priority for Unionist, Nationalist and “progressive” alike is to make Northern Ireland work economically. These mean a radical departure from the stale politics of endless government intervention and being scared of actual export-based wealth creation. After all, it is precisely that which makes us so different from our neighbours… yes, really.

Corbyn’s “simple questions” do not justice to complex world

This day last week Jeremy Corbyn had his best performance at Prime Minister’s Questions, demanding six times whether “Karen”, the real person who had been in correspondence with him and whom he used as an example, would be “worse off” under the tax credits changes. The Prime Minister squirmed.

“All I want is a simple answer to a simple question”, said the Leader of the Opposition.

However, that is the very problem with Mr Corbyn. Because, in fact, it is not a simple question at all.


There is an alarming tendency among politicians, especially as they become ever more populist among electorates increasingly unwilling to compromise, to present “simple questions” and, most of all, to present the world as if it is controlled by politicians. To some extent, it is a comforting thought – we prefer the thought that we live in a world controlled by someone rather than the chaotic reality (as I have explained before).

Thus, Mr Corbyn presents a world in which politicians change things and everything else remains the same – there are no other, independent, actors. As ever, unfortunately, Mr Corbyn’s world is not even reminiscent of the real one in which people do strive, people do aspire, and people do adapt to political decisions.

The image above sums up the issue, usually presented with regard to management of the Health Service. Too often, Health policy is presented as something which politicians and administrators create to manage patients, who have no independent thoughts of their own and will always respond in the same predictable way to any intervention. In rare cases, this is true – someone admitted to hospital with a sudden, serious injury, for example, is in no position to act independently and their care is therefore 100% in the hands of the hospital (at least initially, until family and friends arrive). Just as with learning to throw a stone at a target, practise for long enough and you will perfect this.

However, most cases are not like that. Diagnose a patient with diabetes, for example, and in fact most of that patient’s care is in their own hands. You can advise on diet, medication and other responses, and you can even cajole, but in the end the patient will decide. That is the equivalent of trying to direct a bird, rather than a stone, at a target – you can learn to set it off in the right direction, but in the end it will decide where it goes. Most public policy is, in fact, like that.

This can lead to dramatically different outcomes from those expected, even with vast amounts of public money in play. In the late 1980s, for example, the UK Government wanted to link the new M25 London Orbital Motorway to the Channel Ports, most obviously at Dover. It had two options – upgrade the existing main road, the A2 (which, unbelievably, was still single carriageway on some stretches); or build an entirely new motorway either side of the Medway, the M20. Expert studies showed that, although it was the far more expensive option, the M20 would attract 80% of traffic between the M25 and the Channel Ports if constructed. So the M20 was constructed and London (indeed Cardiff, Liverpool and soon even Glasgow and Newcastle) were finally linked to the Continent by motorway – but for the first decade of its existence, barely 50% of the M25-Channel Ports traffic opted to use it. The Government intervened, gave people the better road, yet still half the people ignored it. There is just no accounting for this.

So, what about “Karen”? The reason the Prime Minister was squirming was of course that, all things being equal, “Karen” will be considerably worse off, at least over the rest of this decade. But he was also squirming because he knows all things are not equal. “Karen” may or may not have time to find a better job and raise her income; she may or may not have time to take on an extra part-time job (say, running a class once a week for £50/evening or helping out with the local cruise firm bringing passengers to or from her local city centre for £100/day); she may redouble her efforts at getting the money she is due from her child’s father; she may even look more closely at her entitlements and realise she’s not receiving all the allowances to which she is entitled. Any of these, far from leaving her £1100 worse off, could see her at least that much or more better off – albeit with the time sacrifice involved; or they may not see her break about even, because she has to even up the gain by paying for childcare or losing an allowance if she works more hours or is allocated more money from whatever source; or they may simply be practically impossible because her circumstances genuinely don’t allow any flexibility and she is already receiving all she is due. We just don’t know. Why do we not know? Because it’s not that simple!

Politicians can act; but so can the public in response. Always beware anyone in the business of government demanding a “simple answer to a simple question” – because it’s a complex world out there.

Sinn Féin still struggling with Catalonia and the border

Sinn Féin and other Irish Nationalists like to talk in terms of the improvements that could be made by “removing the border”, from stopping duplication of services (in their view) to, er, stopping cross-border fuel smuggling (okay, that’s just bizarre and not the topic for today’s blog).

This is odd, however, because it was Irish Nationalists who insisted on creating a border within the British Isles. They may have had very good reason, but it remains the case that once it became inevitable that there would be a border between the Irish and British, the position of that border would be contested. There is no particular logic which places that border in the Irish Sea, any more than it places it where it is, given the pattern of settlement.

However, even of we accept the logic that land borders are a particular problem (whereas somehow sea borders aren’t), because of duplication or smuggling or whatever, it does lead to a peculiar problem with Sinn Féin’s stance: why on earth does it advocate independence for Catalonia? Indeed, far from creating a land border with the inevitable duplication and potential fuel smuggling that would cause, should Irish Republicans not instead be trying to unite Spain and Portugal to abolish one?

There is a blatant inconsistency here. It is very difficult to take Sinn Féin’s positions on anything seriously until such obvious contradictions are sorted out.

NI economy in better shape that figures indicate

Headlines last week indicated that the Northern Ireland economy had contracted over the last quarter, with initial estimates indicating economic output had contracted 0.1%.

I am not an economist, but something strikes me as wrong with that. My impression, in business myself, is that discretionary spending is rising in NI, despite the obvious uncertainty of closures in the retail sector and inevitable (and frankly necessary) public sector job losses.

A few thoughts on what may be wrong.

Firstly, the quarter concerned was the first which saw significant exits from the public sector (and, in any case, incorporated part of the summer break when many people are away), thus reducing the overall “output” figure via what is, in fact, a particular (and, in the long term, wise) adjustment.

Secondly, the figure is a comparison with a previous quarter in which areas such as transport equipment were astonishingly strong. It is to be predicted that such strength would not be repeated.

Thirdly, there is a geographical problem. At the moment, construction in the UK is skewed towards the London area, and any construction work there goes on to the London area figure – even if carried out by a Northern Irish firm which will “repatriate” the profits and by Northern Irish workers who will bring most of the money earned there home.

That final point also ties to a further reality that rising property prices often see a rise in confidence and spending which has no basis in reality. Those rising property prices are much more marked in the rest of the UK. This is a good thing. If there is one thing more important to an economy than confidence, it is stability – so Northern Ireland would be best to avoid this boom and bust cycle, although time will tell if it does so in the long run.

Northern Ireland is fairly well positioned economically with rising confidence in both Great Britain and Ireland (the main export markets), strong foreign direct investment and sensible property prices. Its main problem is political instability, which inevitably delays or even blocks investment leading to jobs. Now there’s a thought…

Paramilitary report must mean comprehensive change

The headlines around yesterday’s IMC-style report focused on the existence of the (Provisional) IRA, the DUP’s subsequent appointment of Ministers, and to some extent in social media on the ongoing existence of Loyalist paramilitary groups.

Of course, the political response ranges from flawed logic (apparently it does not matter how many people Loyalist paramilitaries intimidate or even murder, as long as they’re not in government) to outright lies (the report must be wrong because the IRA does not exist and Sinn Féin’s President was never in it even when it did). The civic response is going to need to be clearer, more reasoned, and frankly more courageous than that.

For the headline in the report was not the one widely quoted (because Stormont’s existence may depend on it), but a broader one in the summary at section ix:

The existence and cohesion of these paramilitary groups since their ceasefire has played an important role in enabling the transition from extreme violence to political progress. Much of the leaderships’ ability to influence, restrain and manage the expectations of its members draw on the authority conferred through these hierarchies. 

We may want to think about that long and hard. It is an open statement of something we all knew to be true – every political party, the security forces, the governments and so on. Yet it is intolerable.

By essentially giving a bye-ball to paramilitary leaders, we have:

  • ensured that we are absolutely not all “equal under the law”, including the effective enabling of a cross-border smuggling trade;
  • allowed, in much of the inner city in particular, a minority to dictate to a majority despite lacking any democratic mandate to do so, providing entirely for the wrong sort of role model;
  • placed into high office, including roles as Special Advisers, people who are not there on the basis of merit but rather on the basis of having in the past supported “extreme violence” (to quote the report), rendering at a disadvantage those who had always sought peaceful means;
  • devalued educational attainment and professional development as a means of attaining influence and high office, while giving the impression that “extreme violence” may in future be a viable route to them;
  • left entire communities entirely dependent on the public purse or other external funding, disempowering them completely from acting and competing in the real economy; and
  • disabled any truly effective community relations programmes, particularly in the inner city, by leaving “hierarchies” in place which draw their very legitimacy from fear and division.

Paying the penalty for this are not educated, professional suburbanites, but the very people in the inner city the two largest parties claim to serve. Yet they have done nothing to move us beyond entire communities living under the “influence and restraint” of “paramilitary leaders”, and thus left them deprived of any real potential for social change or economic growth.

However, it would be unfair to pin the blame entirely on the DUP and Sinn Féin. This has suited the governments and, up to a point, the other parties too.

The question now is a very real one: it is not just how we make “paramilitarism” go away, but also how we replace it with structures which will empower communities, promote economic growth, and encourage social cohesion. 21 years from the ceasefires, this is work which, disgracefully, we haven’t even truly started yet – all because of what is summed up in that single paragraph.

Time to redouble efforts on Road Safety

The last road fatality in Northern Ireland brought the total this year to equal to the total for the whole of 2013 – in other words, by mid-October as many people had lost their lives on our roads as did in the entirety of 2015.

It can be argued that this is inevitable as an economic upturn sees people driving more. However, with vehicle safety improving every year, even that does not necessarily stand to reason. Comparable countries have not seen the rises we have seen in the last two years.

Certainly, as I have noted before, the lack of resources for police enforcement is a serious issue. However, that only reinforces the responsibility on the rest of us. We need to consider whether we are giving the road our full attention; whether we are considering all road users and not just those surrounded by metal; and whether our driving is appropriate to conditions as winter approaches.

Typically, between now and end of year, around 12-14 more people are killed on our roads. Let us try to make that zero.

McCallister proposals still need basic support

I was heartened to see some SDLP backing for the basics of John McCallister’s proposals for reform of the institutions.

So, what are they?!


The purpose of the Bill is to facilitate an “Opposition”, in common with models elsewhere in the British Isles but taking account of Northern Ireland’s peculiar circumstances.

The Bill outlines how one would be formed and gives it certain rights. This, of course, is easier said that done and involves wide-ranging reforms no matter how it is done.

It is formed under the Bill automatically of all MLAs not forming part of Executive parties.

The largest party group nominates the Leader of the Opposition, and the second largest (if there is one) nominates the Deputy Leader.

There is an inherent risk here that the Opposition would be headed by two people of the same current designation. Some may regard that as important; others maybe less so.

Technical Groups

The Bill adopts, from the Dail, Councils and elsewhere, the notion of “Technical Groups” which are treated for most intents and purposes as single party groups, but consist of people elected individually or in small groups under different banners.

These are relevant (seemingly – it is not entirely clear) to determining who would be Leader or Deputy Leader of the Opposition.

They also have rights with regard to membership of the Business Committee.

This is important. The current model, of effectively a governing party scrutinising the accounts, is ludicrous.

Questions / Speaking Rights

Similarly to Westminster but adapted to Stormont, the first and second Topical Questions in the Assembly would automatically come from the Leader and Deputy Leader.

They would also have enhanced speaking rights, the right to nominate the Chair the Public Accounts Committee, and fifteen days’ business in Assembly plenary. They would also have a place on the Business Committee.

These seem highly technical, but do constitute best practice.


The Bill suggests a financial scheme for support, but goes into little detail. Opposition Leaders will also have an additional salary.

There is an issue here – the public is unlikely to accept yet more funding for MLAs!

Perhaps it should be combined with a reduction in Assembly numbers; perhaps the Office Costs Allowance of Ministers should be reduced to make up for the fact they receive policy advice from Special Advisers; or perhaps Special Advisers’ salaries should have a lower cap with the extra going to Opposition Research.

Executive Reform

The Bill also requires the Secretary of State to reform the Executive. This is an attempt to get around the fact that much of the required legislation to establish an Opposition is not under devolved competence.

The exact nature of the Reform is left open to debate.

It allows for but does not require any party with a sixth of MLAs being allowed to nominate a Minister to the Executive.

It allows for but does not require an obligation on parties to agree a Programme for Government before entering the Executive.

It allows for but does not require the function of Committees to change to scrutiny rather than assistance.

It allows for but does not require the passing of the Budget by simple majority.

There is a requirement added to the Ministerial Code for “Collective Ministerial Responsibility”.

It allows for the potential removal of designation and its replacement by Weighted Majorities (requiring support or absention of all MLAs except 29 or another chosen proportion, in practice), but does not require it.

Similarly but not identically to the system in the Republic of Ireland, the Speaker is deemed separate from the Assembly upon election by private ballot. He/she remains in office through elections.

This is, perhaps by necessity, the weakest part of the Bill (as much of it is not devolved, and much of it is left open to maximise support).

For me, the most essential thing is to have a Programme for Government in place before an Executive is formed, and to enforce Collective Responsibility. Parties disagreeing with the Programme then form the Opposition; those agreeing are committed to Collective Responsibility.

Executive Office

The Bill proposes, perhaps counter-intuitively given the Opposition would have a Leader and a Deputy Leader, an ‘Office of the First Ministers’, although it appears the First and deputy First titles would remain.

The Stormont House Agreement in fact renames this in any case, to “Executive Office”.

Executive as Legal Entity

As has recently happened in Wales (and as happened in Scotland from the very start of devolution), the NI Executive would be constituted separately as a single legal entity, with Departments subject to it.

This is very important. Currently Departments operate with a silo mentality and are legally distinct entities, with no requirement to co-operate (indeed, with every reason not to).

Instead, there should be a single Executive with a single agreed programme.


The Bill is very unlikely to pass.

In reality, it is best seen as a discussion document to help the parties at the talks.

What it does do is demonstrate the value of ideas. There is too little of that going on at Stormont!



SNP has a point on “the Vow”

Westminster SNP Leader Angus Robertson has accused the UK Government of “losing control” of “The Vow” (the offer of greatly enhanced powers to the Scottish Parliament made by previous Prime Minister Gordon Brown ahead of last year’s referendum).

He is wrong. The UK Government has not lost control of “The Vow”, because it never had control of it in the first place. By this time last year Gordon Brown was a largely absentee back bench Opposition MP who had no right to make such a vow in the first place, and no means of subsequent delivery.

Nevertheless, the Conservatives should now get on with implementation of the Smith Commission recommendations, for three prime reasons.

Firstly, though I think its effect on the referendum outcome is vastly overstated, there is an understandable perception in Scotland that “The Vow” constituted a binding offer from the three Unionist parties. It should be carried through in good faith.

Secondly, it is in the Union’s interests that the Scottish Parliament have greater welfare and budgetary powers. As frequently noted on this blog, devolution has favoured the financial left because it gets to spend but it is for the UK Government to tax; in fact, finance should generally be raised in a democracy at the level it is spent to give the voters a clear choice and enable Executives and Legislatures at various levels to be held to account.

Thirdly, it is in the Conservatives’ interests to be seen as the drivers of constitutional change for Scotland within in the Union. Their trials in Scotland dated back to many things, but primarily to their failure to grasp the Zeitgeist in Scotland at the time of the devolution referendums in the late ’90s. A Conservative revival in Scotland depends on their ability to be seen as a distinctly Scottish party – something their current leadership has carried out with distinction and which would be further enhanced by the delivery of further powers over Scottish issues into Scottish hands.

Add this in to the practicalities of the roll-out of welfare reforms and tax changes, and it is important that the Scotland Bill has priority to enable practical use of the new powers immediately after the next Scottish Parliamentary Election.

It is time the Conservatives made their Vow to Scotland.


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