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Never Waste a Good Crisis (II) – the Speaker

 

By Richard Price:

The office of speaker is no mere procedural position. The role of the speaker goes beyond simply chairing plenary meetings of the Assembly. The speaker should act as the champion of the legislature and if needed, adjudicate in the interests of Assembly, over that of the Executive. The RHI scandal has exposed this, yet in a potentially helpful way.

The second opportunity provided by the RHI scandal is to elect a new speaker who understands and lives the full remit of the role, and will be a champion of reform to Stormont procedures to ensure the legislature is all that it can be.

John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons, isn’t everyone’s cup of Earl Grey. But the argument that he has elevated and asserted what the role of a speaker/Presiding Officer in an elected chamber is, in comparison to his immediate predecessor, must surely be hard to counter.

His championing of reform, his promotion of scrutiny tools such as urgent questions, his quest for order in proceedings at all times, has earned him respect, even if given begrudgingly, from all who cherish the position of the House of Commons at the centre of our national political system.

Sadly, Stormont has yet to see any such Speaker in the modern era. A speaker who takes it as their goal to elevate the status and operation of the legislature, heedless of past party loyalties, or potential complaints from the Executive. It has also become clear that that person will not come in the form of Robin Newton MLA.

Whilst the circumstances of December’s RHI Statement and Adjournment ‘pantomime’ might have provided a test to any presiding officer, all the same, the test was not met.

Where procedure should not have permitted the First Minister to provide a Statement without the Deputy First Minister’s support, strange allowances in favour of his old party colleague were afforded.

Added to the charge sheet has been a conflict of interest in ruling against legitimate public interest questions on funding for Charter NI.

Then we should recall that under another of Stormont’s “quirks” (failings?), unlike John Bercow, Mr Newton (presumably) remains a fully paid up of the DUP with intention to run for election under the party’s colours again.

Up with this we can no longer put.

The Chamber should elect from its number an individual committed to upholding the needs of Assembly debate and scrutiny, over and above those of any erstwhile political friends in Government.

The Assembly further requires a Bercow-style champion of continuous improvement of the House’s procedural structures, including:

  • Proper opposition debate time and speaking rights.
  • Greater facility for urgent questions.
  • Speedy reform of the broken ‘petition of concern’ mechanism.
  • A plan for long term removal/diluting of ‘community designation’ and its importance.
  • A truly independent speaker who breaks ALL ties with their former party.

Northern Ireland needs a speaker who puts the legislature first, the Executive second. A speaker with an appetite for reform. A speaker who feels the dismay of the public at broken systems and takes it as an impetus for transformation. A speaker who has a plan for taking the Assembly from its present nadir of public esteem, to a place where it can hold its head high against any western counterpart*.

It is still possible that the fallout from #RHI could achieve that. Let us hope so.

(*And wouldn’t John McCallister have made an excellent candidate. Sigh…)

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.

Liofa funding real cause of collapse

I appeared briefly in BBC Talkback yesterday and no sooner had I emphasised yesterday’s point that the Secretary of State should not proceed to an immediate election but probably would, he stood up in the Commons and confirmed he would.

The DUP is now swiftly retreating from previous positions in order to appear not responsible for an election for which it is clearly responsible. Why is a public inquiry the right thing now when it “wasn’t going to happen” on 19 December?

What I did not get to say was that something much worse for power-sharing occurred four days later. DUP Communities Minister Paul Girvan withdrew funding from the Liofa programme, helping poor children learn Irish in the Gaeltacht. The amount was minuscule but what it said to Irish Nationalists, indeed to non-Unionists, was massive. At just the moment bridges needed to be built and respect needed to be shown, the DUP opted for the opposite. It was an appalling act – along with “leprechaun language”, “curry my yoghurt” and a boat renaming, it was yet another needless and gratuitous assault on a language which, though not widely spoken, is at the heart of many Northern Irish people’s national identity.

It is that act more than any, just before Christmas, which made it impossible for Irish Republicans to stay in the Executive as per the “status quo”.

The DUP could yet escape an election by announcing a new bursary and that it would not stand in the way of a reasonably cost-neutral Irish Language Act. It would be free to dress this up under the recognition that, after all, “Presbyterians saved the Irish language”. This would in fact come at no financial or political cost whatsoever.

Yet the DUP probably does not even realise that such a move is necessary, and would probably be too arrogant to pursue one even if it did.

We could be in, resultantly, for a completely unnecessary and nasty election – or even two.

It is simply ludicrous.

Why there absolutely must not be a snap Assembly election

The DUP and Sinn Féin are hopeless at government but very good at politics. Any immediate snap election will be on their terms, in effect electing negotiators for St Andrews II (or Good Friday III or Sunningdale IV) which will inevitably push people to the extremes to “keep themmuns in their place”. This is how Northern Ireland operates.

(These extremes no doubt now consist of three rather than two leaders, with polling and media bids showing rational people fed up with “Unionists” and “Nationalists” are increasingly turning to Naomi Long. I am not objective, but it is fair to say anyone objective would agree her party would probably do quite well too.)

Therefore allowing an immediate snap election, while jobs are at risk due to no Budget, lives are at risk due to lengthening waiting lists, education is at risk due to a teachers’ pay dispute and so on, would be the height of lunacy. There is no justification for allowing two parties running away from these issues then to set the terms of an election, not least when that may well be an election to nothing.

Instead, the Secretary of State should use the “reasonable” time period he has before having to call an election to leave the Assembly in place and convene reform talks involving those elected to it only eight months ago for a five-year term. He should note that he can pass emergency legislation to remove the requirement for an election at any moment, since one would be pointless.

And he should note that, at any time, he can also pass legislation restricting the use of the Petition of Concern.

Remove the abuse of the Petition of Concern, and you essentially remove the entire problem. Arlene Foster would be censured; same-sex marriage would pass; relevant inquiries could be set up; Irish language bursaries could be guaranteed; necessarily tough Budgets and reforms would be easier to get through.

Those talks should be the next step, not an election. And civic society should lose no time in saying so.

Arlene Foster’s delusions of grandeur

We perhaps should not blame Arlene Foster for calling herself “Leader of Northern Ireland” when the BBC itself has been calling her “First Minister of our country”. She is in fact neither, and it’s an important distinction.

The office of “Prime Minister of the United Kingdom” is one which is traditionally recognised by convention rather than law – the very title “Prime Minister” did not appear in any law until 1939. It continues to attract no salary (the salary being paid instead to the “First Lord of the Treasury”, who has been the same person for the past century). Initially the title was understood to mean the Minister without portfolio who chaired the Cabinet – “primus inter pares” (first among equals). Since the War it has become much more of a Leadership role, with convention now dictating that the Prime Minister may overrule other Ministers.

Scottish devolved government was set up with a “First Minister” who held much the same role at devolved level – not just Chair, but actually Director. There, the Scottish Executive (now Government) was set up as a separate body from the Scottish Parliament just as the UK Cabinet is separate from the UK Parliament, and Directorates were set up within it (for Education, Health, Justice etc).

Wales and Northern Ireland, however, were set up differently. In their case, the Executive is a Committee of the Assembly. The role of “First Minister” (shared in effect by two Ministers in Northern Ireland) is much more the older one – Chair of the Committee of Ministers. There is no overrule function.

Thus, as the outset, Scotland had a “First Minister of Scotland” but Northern Ireland and Wales had a “First Minister of the Assembly” – a clear distinction in title for a clear distinction in function.

Wales changed its system after a referendum in 2011 and now its Government, as in Scotland, is a separate entity from its Assembly. Its First Minister now has a role more akin to Scotland’s.

Northern Ireland has not gone that way, however, and it is an important distinction. In Northern Ireland, unlike in Scotland or Wales, each Department is an independent legal entity. Its Ministers are thus Heads of Department and are responsible for that Department (unlike their equivalents in Scotland and Wales, now known as Cabinet Secretaries, who are part of a single entity known as the “Government”).

The role of First and deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland, therefore, has no “leadership” function beyond that of the Executive Office itself (whose functions are now extremely limited). The role is in fact a representative and a chairing one. In other words, unlike in Scotland and Wales, the First Minister(s) in Northern Ireland are not responsible for the conduct of the devolved Government as a whole, only for their own Office and the Executive Committee itself.

It is to be hoped that Arlene Foster understands this, as it not only means that she is not responsible for other Departments now (and is thus not “Leader of Northern Ireland”), but she was responsible for the conduct and decisions of any Department of which she was Minister while she was Minister.

And, at the very least, we should expect the joint Chair of the Executive Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly to understand what her role is – and isn’t.

MLAs’ curious lack of curiosity

Einfallslos. 

This is a German word without obvious translation, but it is always the first word which comes to my mind when I think of Stormont. It means really “idea-less” in the sense of “lacking in things (ideas) occurring to you”; perhaps “lacking in creativity” would cover it in some circumstances.

I was reminded of this by one correspondent over Christmas, who remarked how he found so many MLAs “lacking in curiosity” (his term).

Indeed, I spoke to a German interpreter who worked with a delegation from the German State of Baden-Württemberg to the Assembly, who remarked to me that MLAs did not ask their visitors a single thing about where they were from. Baden-Württemberg, a diverse State (a third of the population of its largest city, Stuttgart, have no German passport) with among the very highest living standards in Europe on the back of a flourishing economy (think Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and countless companies in areas from pharmaceuticals to accounting), is apparently of no interest whatsoever to us. It subsequently elected a Green First Minister, the first in Europe, for the record.

This lack of curiosity, tied to a lack of creativity and basic ideas, is deeply troubling. Frankly, we should not be electing people who are not interested. The penalty is isolation and parochialism, leading inevitably to standards of policy-making, legislation and governance which fall well below the best globally.

We always expect the rest of the world to be curious about us. It is time we were led by people who were curious about the rest of the world – einfallsreich, perhaps!

DUP/SF simply unable and unwilling to govern properly

A snowball is now rolling within the Northern Ireland Executive which means that, seemingly, without a blatant climbdown by one party or the other the Executive will fall, necessitating elections.

Such elections would be utterly pointless of course because, assuming they returned roughly the same Assembly as in May, all the problems at the root of the Executive’s trials would remain. (A few more would be created too – the “convenient” Justice Minister which saved the Executive from an immediate collapse after the last election would probably lose her seat, for example.)

No, at the heart of this, just over half a year in, is the simple fact that the people of Northern Ireland elected into government two parties who are incapable of and uninterested in governing.

People therefore lose give up on “politics”, but actually we should know better than anyone that the choice is between politics and violence. Politics therefore has to be made to work. There is a cost – in drugs unfunded, operations missed and schools unresourced – for having unable and uninterested people in government.

The fact is you could almost pick ten people at random off the street and they would provide a more competent government than the Executive we have (the one we elected). At least some of them would have a basic ability to get on with each other.

The DUP’s story is, of course, not straight. Low level issues concerning the recipients of office rent and maintenance contract have now become huge public interest stories of public money shuffled through mysterious incompetence to people who, some might say suggest, just happen to fit the stereotype of a typical DUP supporter. Claims there is only one letter, or that there were no meetings, or that there was SpAd interference, are soon disproved. British libel laws are blocked by a purportedly British party and the free press attacked for doing its job. Meanwhile the party professes to stay loyal to a Leader whose Ministerial career has consisted of one error or oversight after another, as so eloquently outlined by the Green Party leader on the Assembly floor before Christmas. That Leader is of course capable of absolutely no charity to her coalition partners, literally from Day One talking up the past and even before Day One suggesting she had to remain Finance Minister while her colleagues played hokey-cokey because Nationalists as an entire group could not be trusted with the purse strings (what goes around comes around, it turns out…)

Not that Sinn Féin is an innocent party by any means. It has had the chance to deliver on key issues for it such as an Irish Language act but failed due to ludicrous overreaching; it too has gone against Business Cases (e.g. the movement of an entire Department to Ballykelly is against advice); it has then shown itself confused about what a public inquiry is and how it works (the ludicrous notion that the politically appointed Attorney General would have anything to do with making appointments to an independent inquiry, for example, shows basic ignorance of the legal system and an unwillingness to become informed even when this is pointed out); and then it too has lashed out at the media merely for pointing out inconsistencies in exactly what its demands are. Meanwhile the left hand is unclear what the right hand is doing, and its Finance Minister denies any involvement in the scandal despite plainly knowing about it since before a Committee meeting in early October and holding an office through which he could act to limit the damage.

Fundamentally, if the DUP and Sinn Féin cannot work together, then they have no business going to the electorate pretending they can and then just hobbling from crisis to crisis. No matter how good they are at populism, the fact that elections could even be spoken of only eight months after the last ones shows how utterly useless they are at democratic government.

After all, it does not take a genius to see that, in a democracy, when things go wrong you have a proper independent inquiry into who was responsible and what can be learned. So why is the Executive set against this obvious course of action?

They are not only useless, but they evidently also have something to hide, just as they hide their donors. The notion of pointless elections should not deflect us from that key point.

Oh, and always remember. Pride comes before a fall.

World in 2016 is a great place

Global poverty (i.e. subsisting on under what, in 1980, was $1/day) has halved since 1980.

In that time, the total extent of human knowledge has risen over 350-fold.

For the first time ever, the majority of the world’s population lives in a democracy.

More people have access to healthcare, welfare and information than at any time in history.

People live longer in every part of the world than they ever have; not least because road fatality rates have halved this century and people are less likely to be victim of a violent death than ever before. (It’s an extreme case, but in 1972 there were 480 violent deaths in Northern Ireland; in 2016 there have been 15.)

Scientific endeavour is eradicating diseases, delivering improved medicines, and uncovering aspects of the universe around us which move us closer to answering the ultimate question of whether we are alone.

People are freer, healthier and more educated than at any time in human history.

Just some thoughts about how bad things are in 2016…

Happy New Year.

 

 

 

HIV, the DUP, and why Liberals lose

A DUP MLA earlier this month gained headlines for the admission that he had not realised, when first elected, that heterosexual people could get HIV.

This was leapt upon by various Liberals on social media, mocking his (past) ignorance.

And this is precisely why Liberals lose elections and referendums with frightening regularity.

In principle, what happened here was a man admitted that he had not known something, and that once he had been informed he used his new knowledge to adapt his position – in fact, to a more broadly Liberal one.

If, every time someone admits an error and adopts a more Liberal position in rectifying it, Liberals jump on that person’s past ignorance rather than current courage, then how exactly will they ever persuade anyone to their perspective ever again? What is the point in switching to a more Liberal position if Liberals yell at you either way?

Of course, the other problem is that they then miss the real issue. The DUP MLA rather spoiled the whole thing by saying effectively that he was only supporting people with HIV because some of them are heterosexual. The logical progression of that would seem to suggest that he is still an unreconstructed homophobic bigot. But Liberals were so busy calling him names about his past ignorance on health matters, they actually (with some exceptions) missed the potentially relevant bit.

And yet even there, he same MLA did not stand in the way of a pardon for past homosexual offences the same week, a significant advance on his and his party’s previous position. If Liberals in Northern Ireland would like an advance in other areas – for example turning the Assembly majority for same-sex marriage into actual legislation by the end of this decade – then it is the DUP’s support or at least effective neutrality they will need. The evidence now is that this is possible. So perhaps it is worth asking what needs to be done, and not done, to achieve that further advance?

There is more to changing society than joining a self-congratulatory mob to yell at people you don’t like online, even where we have genuine reason to dislike someone on the basis of their stance. People on all sides need to realise that quickly.

A resolution for 2017. By all means educate. But never humiliate.