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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.  


Merry Christmas


Be good. Stay safe. Have fun.

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.

Homeless benches should be restored – but won’t solve the issue

I am wary of commenting too much on homelessness, but Micky Murray has worked with homeless people for many years. His take on the decision by Belfast City Council to cut away benches used by them is authoritative, and repeated here:

Following the decision by Belfast City Council to *cut away* benches that are used mainly by the homeless I contacted some of our Cllrs to relay my disgust, they have contacted the council to have the issue addressed, but being as issue close to my heart I couldn’t stop there so I’ve writing the following to the Belfast City Council.

For seven years I worked in the homeless sector with a few different organisations all based in the city centre, as most of our homeless services, outreach, voluntary groups and social security, not to mention the constant policing of the city centre, people who are homeless gravitate to the area for service provisions and safety.

Today I read an article in the Irish News that the council have removed seating from an area where many homeless people socialise, but it wasn’t just straight forward as removing the benches, the council actually cut away the wooden part of the benches, leaving the concrete sides and part of the wood connected to the concrete, I find this completely heartless. What opinion does this give to the homeless and others about how our council treats the homeless, the most vulnerable people in society, people who don’t have a home?

I know that many would make out that the homeless crisis in Belfast is bigger than it is, many would also like to make out that it’s not as bad as it is, I’m fully aware that on any given night there are anywhere from 4-12 rough sleepers in the city centre, and I would like to think that you agree that is 4-12 people too many. Although, homelessness is not just rough sleepers, it’s people who are using temporary accommodation, people who live in squats, people in hostels, anyone who doesn’t have a permanent home for themselves.

Back to the original issue, the benches. Where do people go during the day when they don’t have a home? Many of the people within the homeless community go to Jubilee Square and socalise, some of them have substance misuse issues, some of them don’t, some of them don’t even socialise, they sit there because there is other people there and they feel safe. Cutting away seating so that they cannot sit there doesn’t help to address the homelessness issue or any ASB issues we have here, all it does it give the message to anyone homeless in Belfast that the council don’t care.

I know that during the December full council meeting of Belfast City Council a motion on homelessness was put forward, so I know the council care, I know there are people there who genuinely want to make a difference. Cutting away seating so that the homeless cannot sit there because some people have an issue with it is not the way to show that our council cares, it’s not a smart use of council resources and it certainly doesn’t do anything to contribute toward helping the homeless.

I find this decision by the council completely and utterly heartless.

EU (and Ireland) saving UK from itself

Lucid Talk poll caught people’s attention recently by being the first ever which indicated support in Northern Ireland for a “United Ireland”. Now, the poll was very specific – would people vote to remain in the EU via a United Ireland (implicitly, if that were the only way to do so as per the 1998 Agreement) in the event of a Hard Brexit. Nevertheless, the direction of travel is clear – the DUP’s ludicrous determination to “unite Unionism” is in fact being just as successful at “uniting non-Unionism” – a whopping 57% of “others” (who now account for 12-15% of the electorate – and the crucial balance at that) told the poll that they would prefer the EU over the UK.

After all if, as in the DUP’s world, the Unionist wife of a former RUC Chief Constable is “one of them”, that doesn’t leave too many of “us”…

It is interesting, therefore, that it is in fact the EU, with Ireland at the forefront, which is saving the UK from itself – and indeed that this is something that could not happen without the existence of Northern Ireland.

The UK, led of course by England and Wales, has embarked on a profoundly ideological act of lunacy, aimed not just at leaving the EU but at cutting itself off from the world entirely. The populist nativism of the most crazed Brexiteers should, in any rational country, have rebounded on them by now, because their base argument has been shown to be utterly wrong and they have thus committed the most outrageous U-turn. Their basic original argument was that “the EU need us more than we need them” (this was backed up neither by data nor common sense); having found out clearly that this is the obvious nonsense anyone rational already knew it to be, they then embarked on a strategy of “Just leave anyway”!

The truth, actually, is that (from a trade, research, security, geopolitical and every other point of view) the UK needs the EU whereas the EU merely wants the UK. Just because this is unpalatable to British nationalists does not make it untrue. Yet the latter point is important.

Because in fact the EU does want the UK – at least in some sort of partnership – it has embarked on a strategy which, while not without fault, has a perfectly laudable aim. Basically, the UK should go but the partnership should be maintained. In order to achieve this, there should first be a basic agreement of principles (even of the worst case scenario); there should then be a transition; and there should then be a sensible Trade Deal (actually, this would be better referred to as a “Partnership Agreement” as it will go well beyond trade – even the UK has already accepted it should, for example, include common aviation regulations).

So while the UK Government blunders on clueless, claiming it has impact assessments which have no impact and are not assessments for example, the EU is busy saving the partnership – because it does of course want one. Ireland has in fact played a key role (although it should be noted for the record that even it is considerably less reliant on trade with the UK than the UK is with the EU) in holding the line, almost literally, to ensure basic principles around the border – including broad ones around North-South cooperation and consequent alignment of regulations – are maintained come what may. Work back from there (as Fintan O’Toole notes, like Sherlock Holmes you start with the impossible and go with whatever is left) and you end up with the UK aligned to the EU in a range of ways which leave a partnership intact. That is what the EU will do.

Of course, when this is finished, we will be left to wonder what the point is of leaving in the first place…



Why “Taoiseach” but not “Bundeskanzler”?

A question was raised in social media the other day, albeit slightly in jest, around why the media refer to the head of the Irish Government by his Irish language title “Taoiseach”, but to the head of the German Government by her English language title “Chancellor” (as opposed to “Bundeskanzlerin”, noting the additional feminine suffix -in).

In fact, the reason is simple. The Head of the Irish Government’s title even in English is “Taoiseach”. This is one example of the way in which the Irish language plays a symbolic (rather than a particularly communicative) role in Irish national life, and it is far from the only example. The police service is referred to even in English as An Garda Síochána, the planning authority as An Bord Pleanála, and so on. Most political parties maintain their Irish language name even in English. Part of this plays into the profound role the Irish language plays among those who do not in fact speak it but nevertheless regard themselves as holding an Irish national identity.

No such commonality exists between the German language and German national identity – not least because the vast majority of Germans speak German all the time anyway. In fact, if anything, the “cool” thing to do in German is to borrow an English language word (such as the word “cool” itself) or even entire phrase (though not always precisely – Germans say “last not least” and speak of “das Happy-End”, neither of which is quite right, but perhaps such things are “fifty-fifty”). There is thus no insistence that the title of the Head of Government must be in German, as long as it is a rough translation. (Germans do, out of interest, have a bizarre keenness for the all-compassing use of the prefix “Bundes-” meaning “Federal”, to the extent that the manager of the national football team even is referred to simply as the “Bundestrainer” – which would literally suggest he trains the entire federation, and not just its elite footballers!)

The distinction between “Chancellor” and “Prime Minister” is merely one of cultural reference, but it is notable that it is maintained in English. Similarly, the United States (and some other countries such as Argentina and Mexico, referred to in English) has a “Congress” whereas most other places have a “Parliament” – “Congress” implies specifically a legislature bringing together members from different parts of the federation meeting “in congress”, whereas “parliament” requires only members. Ireland, of course, splits its parliament into Dáil Éireann (with Teachtaí Dála or “TDs”) and Seanad Éireann, even in English.

There are some quirks here in the English-language references to other Heads of Government too, however. Whereas English translates “premier ministre” as “prime minister” and “Kanzler” as “chancellor”, it does not do Southern European or Scandinavian leaders quite the same courtesy. Italy and Spain, for example, refer to their Head of Government as “Presidente” (“President”; understood in these cases to mean “of the Council” or “of the Government”), but to avoid any clash with the usual term used for the Head of State in a republic English sticks with the translation “prime minister”. Sweden, Denmark and Norway, on the other hand, refers to their Heads of Government as “statsminister” (“minister of state”), but to avoid potential confusion with lower ranking ministers English again here sticks with “prime minister”. These things are never straightforward!

Interestingly, although it was widely used from the Victorian Era, the term “Prime Minister” did not appear in law even in the UK until the 1930s and still does not, of itself, carry any salary. An Taoiseach is, of course, notoriously overpaid…

Dear PM, Do not be Captain who sank the Titanic

Dear Prime Minister,

The great city of Belfast was home to a news conference on Monday which played significant part in the latest failure to make a breakthrough in seeking a post-Brexit UK/EU partnership. Accompanied by Nationalist pressures in Scotland and regionalist pressures in London, as well as the subsequent admission that “impact assessments” do not in fact exist, it served as the latest warning that on 23 June 2016 the people voted on a profoundly false prospectus. 

The great city of Belfast was also, of course, home to the construction of the great ship, RMS Titanic. “It was fine when it left us” goes the local refrain! There is, in fact, some dispute among historians over some of the issues around its sinking in 1912. However, what is not in dispute is the ultimate outcome of its first and only voyage, nor who had ultimate responsibility for that outcome.

1,517 people were killed when Titanic sank, and the consequent damage, suffering and grief in some ways still lives with us in what is now a post-industrial city and a post-industrial country. The scale of the disaster is such that many people can still recite the name of the person ultimately responsible – Captain Edward Smith. 

For amid all the debate about what happened on that fateful voyage, one thing is clear. When Captain Smith received the warning of icebergs ahead, he should either have stopped or changed course. 

Perhaps it was the ludicrous notion that the ship was unsinkable, perhaps it was the idea that he had to get to New York ahead of schedule, perhaps it was pure Imperial bravado – but whatever the reason was, Captain Smith ignored the warnings and his name now lives on in infamy. Whatever else he achieved in his life, he alone was responsible for ploughing on regardless, and he alone was responsible for the immense grief and suffering thus caused.

Now, you are the Captain. The warning lights are flashing. To plough on regardless, whatever those around you and in the media may be saying, is not a risk; it is to maintain a course you know will result in disaster (with life boats only available for some in first class). You can see the iceberg as well as I can, and you know as well as I do that, like Captain Smith, you in fact have only two legitimate options now to avoid immense suffering – you can either stop and reassess, or you can change course. 

History will of course judge you solely by which option you choose – providing leadership to prevent suffering, or standing by and allowing it to be caused. You can choose to go down in history like Captain Smith – or you can do the right thing. 

Yours sincerely,