Category Archives: Uncategorized

Even basic scrutiny shows Corbyn cannot be PM

The prospect of the Conservatives being returned with a landslide majority of 1997 proportions probably scares any democrat. One reason it is likely is that the pro-Brexit side seem to be pooling their votes more efficiently than the anti-Brexit side across the UK. Another is that left liberals continue to simply to insult their opponents rather than persuade them (many responses to news that the Conservatives were ahead in Wales were along the lines that the Welsh had turned “stupid” – this widespread but arrogant correlation between “being stupid” and “voting Tory” is the very reason so many people reject apparently arrogant left-Liberals rather than allegedly disdainful Tories). Yet it is hard to get away from the fact that one reason for their imminent success (although I suspect the majority will be a little more modest in the end) is the Leader of the Opposition.

The issue is not so much that Mr Corbyn is “well to the left”. Nor is it even that he is a minority in his own party, with only a tiny minority of his own party’s MPs believing him to be truly up to the task. It is that he is simply intellectually well short of where a serious candidate for such high office should be.

Let us just take one answer on BBC Marr last Sunday. Asked about the nuclear deterrent, he ducked the question and merely repeated the left-populist mantra that it would be better to aim for a “nuclear-free world”. We simply do not live in such a world. Even if, in Mr Corbyn’s fantasyland, all global leaders including mad tyrants decided to decommission their weapons (and stop tests towards having them), the fact remains and will always remain that the technological capacity exists to build them at any time. It is reasonable to argue that the UK cannot afford an independent nuclear deterrent, but it is a simple impossibility to deliver a “nuclear-free world” given, quite simply, that nuclear weapons exist.

This issue is repeated over all kinds of issues – appeals to “end inequality” without any serious consideration as to why inequality exists, what it is that permits it, and what could reasonably be done to tackle it; appeals to “nationalise” without any scrutiny of what works well when state-owned and what, the very least, restricts freedom unacceptably when state-owned; reference to “corporatism”, “neo-liberalism” or even “Blairism” as apparent evils without any intellectual or practical definition of them whatsoever.

To do the rationalising without the emotional appeal would be limiting; to do the emotional appeal (or populism, as this often descends to) without rational scrutiny would be borderline dangerous; but to lack both is simply intolerable.

Sectarianisation of Brexit profoundly unhelpful

When the SDLP suddenly realised that a snap UK election may cost it all three of its Westminster seats, it immediately did something which may in the medium term herald the end of the party – it sought a sectarian pact with Sinn Féin.

It has, of course, since tried to dress this up as an “anti-Brexit” pact. This does not even begin to stack up. If the SDLP were genuine about opposing Brexit at Westminster, why was its first port of call a party which does not even participate there? Why has the only other Northern Ireland MP who actually turns up and opposes Brexit, Lady Hermon, who happens to be Unionist, not ever been mentioned within this “anti-Brexit” ploy?

It gets far worse, however. Because not once has a serious plan to secure Northern Ireland’s future relations with the European Union been mentioned.

Here is the real thing: most of the issues which impact upon Northern Ireland’s future relations with the European Union are in fact devolved. Northern Ireland is perfectly able, if the SDLP’s new bed mates in Sinn Féin were ever to take their seats in the Executive, to maintain EU policy in fields as wide as employment law and consumer protection. It is at liberty to seek its own arrangements on access to Health Research and reciprocal healthcare arrangements with EU states. It is even at liberty to seek its own specific deal on sharing information to tackle crime, recognising driving licences, and managing educational exchanges. Northern Ireland will also have to manage agricultural subsidies, infrastructure funding and even social programmes currently managed by or funded by EU bodies. As of next year, Northern Ireland could even decide to run with a policy of zero corporation tax to challenge for FDI as a “gateway region with access both to the UK and the EU”. Not a single aspect of this – all of which should be being dealt with by the Assembly as this election campaign goes on – has even been mentioned.

Brexit is going to happen whatever the outcome of this General Election in Northern Ireland, but the outcome of it could be managed so that the worst impacts were avoided and indeed some advantages sought through specific arrangements. To turn it into a simplistic issue to be dealt with by a sectarian pact with an abstentionist party whose own heritage is laced with Euroscepticism shows yet again a willingness to put short-term electoral advantage over the real long-term interests of the people of Northern Ireland. No wonder, thankfully, more and more people are turning away from the sectarian politics which has served them so poorly on this issue and many others.

How to form an Executive at Stormont…

I had a bit of fun with some correspondents last week on the idea of the “Commission Executive” I floated three weeks ago. Some of the questions posed in fact affect the formation of any Executive, and they probably need to be looked at (at least eventually, given yesterday’s events).

It is worth emphasising – and the media should do more to stress this point – that the fundamental issue currently at Stormont is our inability to form an Executive.

In other words, we have a legislature (the Assembly), but no government (the Executive).

The reason for this is that our system for forming an Executive is extraordinarily restrictive. Firstly, it assigns only three weeks to the task; and secondly, it absolutely requires two particular parties (the largest party and the largest party in the largest different designation)  to enter the Executive even if they agree on nothing otherwise.

Although the origin is understandable, this is a frankly bizarre and unwieldy system and, one day, it will have to change. There is at least a case that that day has now arrived.

The ultimate objective, whenever this change is made, would be quite simple. Any Executive which can be formed and pass a Programme for Government and Budget should be allowed to do so.

Such a system already requires that such an Executive would include power-sharing. To pass a Programme for Government and Budget under the current Petition of Concern system, it would either have to carry a two-thirds majority in a 90-member Assembly or it would have to carry a straight majority in the Assembly as a whole and in both largest designations. I wonder if anyone has even realised this?

The easiest way to legislate for this would probably be to say that if a First Minister and deputy First Minister cannot be nominated under the current system, instead of going to an election, the largest party would be given a certain period of time (probably more than three weeks in practice) to see if it could come to a “Coalition Agreement”. If it could not do so, the next largest party would be entitled to try, and so on, until it was “clear to the Secretary of State that no such Agreement was viable” (or some other similar form of words).

That Agreement would include:

  • the number of Executive Departments and their functions (perhaps the legislation permitting this arrangement should clarify no fewer than six and no more than 10);
  • the names of the Departmental Ministers appointed to head each Department (no more than 10; this would in theory allow for Junior Ministers to be assigned to larger departments);
  • the number and names of no fewer than two and no more than four “Executive Officers” (these would cover the functions of First and deputy First Minister on a rotating basis – there is no reason they should not also be Departmental Ministers);
  • a Programme for Government; and
  • an outline Legislative Programme.

That Coalition Agreement would then be put to the Assembly and, if it passed (noting that to pass it would either require two-thirds assent or majority support from both designations otherwise it could be blocked by a Petition of Concern), the Departmental Ministers and Executive Officers would thus be deemed appointed to form the Executive and carry out the Programmes outlined.

Note also that such an Agreement makes no restrictions on the number or order of Ministers (other than they must stick within the confines noted) – so, for example, a small party from one designation agreeing to form an Executive with a large party from the other could still insist during the negotiations on the same number of seats in the Executive or even on attaining particular Ministries.

I think there would be three more apparently minor amendments needed:

  • Petitions of Concern could not be used to block Executive business (policy motions or legislation) arising from the Programmes outlined in the Coalition Agreement;
  • Ministers so appointed would remain in office until they were replaced (even beyond elections on a caretaker basis, as is perfectly normal elsewhere); and
  • there would be a requirement to pass an annual Budget.

This latter is particularly important, as failure to pass a Budget (also subject to Petition of Concern) would be constitute a vote of no confidence in the Executive – and indeed would be how no confidence would be expressed by the Assembly (noting that the opportunity would thus arise annually). A vote of no confidence in the Budget would then return the process to the beginning (an attempt at nominating a First and deputy First Minister and then Ministers by d’Hondt; attempts at a Coalition Agreement; then an election).

In other words, it would all be quite normal – but would still have the relevant checks and balances in place to ensure cross-community consent.

Just a thought!

#GE17 need not be a complete disaster for NI

In the short term, the UK General Election due to be confirmed in Parliament today is surely not good news for Northern Ireland. The Irish Foreign Minister, Charlie Flanagan, immediately understood that having at least one election in the offing is unlikely to create the necessary space for the type of compromise required to get an Executive back up and running at Stormont before 8 June. While some will now seek to gain electoral capital by denying it, there were signs that the parties were laying the ground for a re-start of some sort, but that re-start will at best now be somewhat delayed.

In the long term all may not be lost, however. There are a number of reasons for this.

Firstly, there is a strong case that an ‘unelected’ Prime Minister leading a party with a manifesto commitment to remain in the European Single Market (something which jars with her own commitment to leave the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice which oversees the rules of that Single Market) should seek a democratic mandate for what she proposes to do. This may not appear at first sight to matter to people on waiting lists, or concerned about jobs, or wondering when their local school will be rebuilt, but in the current global climate democracy (or at least some semblance of it) matters.

Secondly, with regard to “Brexit”, the prospect of an increased Conservative majority may work out to be no bad thing. Arguably at least, it will enable the Prime Minister to take a more moderate negotiating position without being wholly reliant on hard-line back benchers. That, if it came to pass, would be no bad thing for Northern Ireland.

Thirdly, that likely increased Conservative majority would leave it less reliant (even potentially) on DUP MPs. This may make life easier for the next UK Government trying to find some sort of deal in Northern Ireland, as it will be seen as a (slightly) more honest broker.

Fourthly, there is the simple issue that it was never necessarily the case that a (relatively) quick deal in Northern Ireland would be a good thing. Perhaps (prospectively) taking the summer to re-build relations between the parties, assess reasonably the flaws in the institutions as they are, and work out the detail of what changes are necessary to place a future Executive on a firmer footing than the last one was.

Of course, for this optimistic assessment to come to pass, the Northern Ireland issue will need more careful management than it has had hitherto. Northern Ireland will need a voice in the Brexit debate and the DUP’s acceptance of ‘particular arrangements’ will need to be fully considered; the next UK Government itself will need to understand better its role with regard to implementing past and current agreements; and after 8 June all sides will need to be determined to put popular need ahead of electoral benefit for the good of the overall process. The outcome of the election is no sure thing either – while not calling an early election in 2007 worked against Gordon Brown, actually calling one in early 1974 worked against Ted Heath as well.

From 9 June, let us hope for determined and cool heads.

Actually tourism can turn Belfast & NI around…

On 1 September last year I appeared on the radio to argue that tourism could not be the answer to Northern Ireland’s economic woes following on from this piece.

However, one reader wants to challenge me on that point! In the week Belfast hosts the 2017 Routes Europe aviation networking conference and writing in a purely personal capacity, Deborah Swain writes:

I would argue very much that tourism is absolutely central to Northern Ireland’s economic prospects. This is largely because the very purpose of tourism is to market Northern Ireland!

This week sees a major aviation networking conference, Routes Europe, take place in Belfast. It is events like this which have thrust so many cranes into the city’s skyline – there are now 19 hotels being constructed in the Greater Belfast area precisely because so many people want to come here. One major reason for this is events such as this conference.

This is not just good news for hotel chains. Everyone, from the hospitality industry (restaurants, retail etc) to taxis gain from this.

Furthermore, I would not distinguish between tourism and other sectors of the economy as if they are separate. They are fundamentally interlinked. Organisations such as Invest NI, Tourism NI and Visit Belfast work together to generate business tourism. The very idea is to expose people to Northern Ireland so that they come to consider it as a business destination – to create wealth and jobs across various sectors. By creating networks, promoting site visits and so on, what counts to us as tourism can be clearly more than what counts to many as tourism!

Routes Europe alone, for example, will see 1200 decision makers come to the city. This is a direct opportunity for our three airports to make their case to improve linkages; but much more than that, it presents Belfast as a location to build networks and do business. This can then be replicated in other sectors, because the infrastructure in Belfast and across Northern Ireland will be in place to do so.

Just this year, our “tourism” product will be targeted to bring world-leading industries to Northern Ireland with a strategic focus – that is to say, with a focus on key sectors such as cyber-security.

Tourism therefore is the very cornerstone of our economic turnaround – facilitating the very growth in targeted areas we want to see.

What do you think?

Parkinson’s 200th anniversary

This is a personal blog and I don’t generally bring business or clients into it, but this one is important!

This year Parkinson’s Awareness Week (10-16 April) marks two milestones. It was exactly 200 years ago yesterday that James Parkinson first identified the condition in his ‘Essay on the Shaking Palsy’; and it was 50 years ago that the last major breakthrough in Parkinson’s medication was made with the arrival of levodopa.

But these anniversaries are no cause for celebration. 200 years on 3,600 people with Parkinson’s in Northern Ireland are still waiting for an effective treatment that tackles the condition head on. And it’s unacceptable that 50 years after levodopa people with Parkinson’s continue to struggle to do the simple things that most of us take for granted.

Parkinson’s can fluctuate dramatically too with symptoms varying day by day and even hour by hour. People with Parkinson’s often experience tremor, slowness of movement and rigidity. Other less common symptoms include tiredness, insomnia, pain, nausea, loss of balance and constipation.

But that’s not the whole story because Parkinson’s affects almost every area of a person’s life. As well as the physical symptoms people with Parkinson’s can also have a range of ‘hidden’ symptoms including anxiety, depression, hallucinations and mental health problems.

The slow progress towards new treatments is just not good enough and Parkinson’s UK is today saying we won’t wait any longer.

The We Won’t Wait campaign aims to deliver better treatments in years not decades. Current drugs for Parkinson’s don’t stop the condition from getting worse – they only paper over the cracks by masking the symptoms. And all too often the treatments have distressing side effects.

Decades of research has deepened our understanding of Parkinson’s. We’ve discovered

We believe the science is ready for those discoveries to leave the lab and be turned into life-changing treatments. We’re convinced that new and effective treatments are within our grasp and we’re ready to drive forward the research community in a radical new approach to develop better treatments, faster.

We want to encourage better leadership that brings the best ideas together to accelerate the journey towards better treatments and ultimately a cure.

People with Parkinson’s describe the condition as taking away a little piece of them every day and are hugely concerned about the affects it has on their families. We want to change that and we want this to be the last generation of people with Parkinson’s in Northern Ireland who face an uncertain future knowing that their condition will never improve.

They don’t want to wait any longer for better treatments. And nor should they. But we can’t do this alone. That’s why we’re urgently asking people to donate whatever they can to support our vital research. We can’t stand by and let Parkinson’s treatments fall further behind.

To donate or find out more about the We Won’t Wait campaign visit www.wewontwait.parkinsons.org.uk

“Liberals” fail another media test

A notable rag of a newspaper last week ran a front page picture which focused on two political leaders’ legs.

Liberal social media went ballistic. And, thus, missed the point yet again.

For getting the Liberal social media to go ballistic was the whole point. Yet again a raft of left-liberals ranted, as if a logical position was going to persuade this particular paper of the error of its ways.

Meanwhile, the paper itself is the second most profitable globally, outstripping any competition in the UK several-fold.

What it had done successfully was move the whole story away from the real issues, all while allowing its own Conservative/Brexiteer readership to enjoy the spectacle of the “other side” retreating into righteous (but actually pointless) indignation.

No one needed to be told why the picture and the headline were wrong. By commenting so widely on it, left-liberals yet again left Conservatives/Brexiteers to frame the debate exactly the way they wanted.

Yet again also, it would pay to note that Conservatives/Brexiteers are the voting majority in the UK and have been for some time. Left-liberals really should have worked out by now that what they are doing is wrong. We know the definition of those who do the same thing and expect a different result.

Righteous indignation in social media does not deliver actual real-world social change. Securing real power and influence means framing the debate the way you want it and working hard to earn the trust even of people who do not agree with you on every point. When will the supposedly better educated left-liberals work that one out?!

British humiliating themselves internationally

I have written many times about how the world would be a better place if politicians could admit they got things wrong.

The simple fact – and it is a fact – is that those who proposed “Brexit” on the basis that the EU would be bound to give the UK a good deal plainly got it wrong. Now they should simply admit it.

From the very start, on these pages, I warned that entering negotiations on the future UK-EU relationship on the basis that at the end of those negotiations the UK would 100% have to leave was simply ludicrous. It hands all the cards over the EU and means – as is now happening – that the EU will simply dictate the terms of the UK’s exit. As Lord Heseltine said, this is not taking back control but ceding it.

A much more sensible route would have been for the UK to identify the reasons for the “Leave” vote and then propose a new relationship based, quite possibly, on greater border control (mind, it already has a lot more control of its border than it likes to admit) and perhaps even a reduced budget contribution (perhaps, for example, by separating UK aid to the developing world from EU aid). Whether that relationship was technically “in” or “out” would have been almost irrelevant – it would have maintained a free trading relationship with our closest allies, while also taking full account of the referendum result (i.e. of the reasons for it). The UK would have had a strong negotiating position, as other EU states would have been keen for the outcome to be “technically in” in order for no one else to be tempted to leave. The UK chose to ignore this sensible route.

And so it is that all the claims the Leave side made are proving false; and indeed many of the warnings the Remain side made are proving correct. Most of these claims and warnings involved finance, but in fact the most startling example thus far (and we are only a few days in!) came in the form of a bizarre comment by a Conservative and former Leader that the UK would go to war over Gibraltar if it came to it.

The whole point of the EU, its advocates constantly pointed out, is that it removes the need for petty nationalism and thus drastically decreases the prospect of war. If people in the UK, Spain and Gibraltar all have EU passports, agree EU standards and trade under EU rules, it frankly does not much matter whether Gibraltarians regard themselves as British or Spanish. If, on the other hand, this is made to matter by the UK not just leaving the EU but in fact even leaving the Single Market and Customs Zone, then conflict will inevitably ensue. It is, of course, utterly ludicrous for anyone to suggest that conflict will take the form of a ‘war’, but it will inevitably see tensions between the UK and Spain rise – noting that 26 other European states will have it in their interests to take Spain’s side.

This all simply leaves the British utterly humiliated. Far from a “modern” or “global” Britain, we now have buffoons hinting at war with Spain and restoring imperial measurement units (that no one else uses). The country is split down the middle – between those who want to live in the 1950s and those who want to live in the 1590s.

The whole thing is utterly ludicrous and demands an immediate rethink, before the UK’s delusions do some real damage – noting that such damage will only be to itself.

Removal of Belfast traffic lights right move

No doubt the callers to BBC Nolan won’t like it, but the decision by our administrator government to remove Belfast’s traffic lights is welcome.

For once, Belfast will now be ahead of the curve. Self-driving vehicles won’t need traffic lights anyway. It will only be a few years of chaos before the wisdom of the move becomes apparent.

In any case, traffic lights are expensive. Maintaining them is a pain. The money will be much better spent in keeping open half-used courthouses and training extra teachers who end up working in supermarkets.

The biggest advantage will be that the gridlock so caused will encourage even civil servants out of their cars and into public transport. The positive environmental impact will last almost as long as cars we drive ourselves.

Plenty of Dutch villages now manage without traffic lights, and so will Belfast. Ignore the negative naysayers.

What about a “Commission Executive”?

At the height of the banking crisis and after a period when it had been suffering a generation of low economic growth anyway, Italy faced total financial and political collapse. It became impossible to find a government, because anyone in government would face an unfeasible situation and an inevitable set of unpopular decisions ahead. At least, it became impossible to find a government made up of politicians…

So Italy effectively skipped the politicians and appointed an academic, Mario Monti, as Prime Minister. He took some tough decisions, and while all is still far from well in the country, its finances stayed afloat (and it even remained within the Eurozone). The politicians are now back in control and normal service (admittedly rarely a good thing in Italy) has been resumed.

What about that for an idea, at least to get a local Executive up and running while talks are ongoing?

In effect, a group of expert Commissioners would be appointed to hold Ministerial responsibilities (with perhaps Executive Office temporarily subsumed within the NIO) and manage at least the Budget and public policy. It would not even be necessary to cover each Department with a single “Commissioner-Minister”. The Health “Commissioner-Minister” could be one of Bengoa’s or Compton’s expert panel; the Finance or Economy “Commissioner-Minister” an expert from the defunct ERINI or a think tank; and so on. Assembly Committees would remain in place to scrutinise Budget and policy, and even to pass any absolutely necessary legislation (for example around implementation of Health Reform).

That would put a government in place, and allow talks to continue to restore “proper devolution” through reformed and improved institutions.

A thought, anyway?