Category Archives: Uncategorized

Rule of Law – Part III

Another issue with the Rule of Law applying equally to everyone is that this is also the case financially.

A recent case revealed that Carers’ Allowance was being paid, in the case of one Councillor, directly into Sinn Fein’s bank account.

There has long been an issue with Sinn Fein representatives’ salaries being paid directly into party accounts. This is irregular and, in the case of benefits, illegal. It has implications for tax, as much as anything else. Sinn Fein has to realise that money in its account which should be taxed is being taken away from public services, not put into them – it does not get to dictate such things. We are long past the point where this should be being enforced.

However, that was not the most peculiar aspect of the Councillor story. What was peculiar was that the Judge, essentially, did nothing about it, even though it goes beyond irregular.

We are, therefore, left with the bizarre situation that Sinn Fein is taking a particular position on benefits which is of relevance to its own party bank account. This is a blatant clash of interest – as well as being illegal.

Elected representatives should pay the tax they are due to pay and receive only the benefits to which they are entitled.

At the talks, all parties can agree to that, right?

Rule of Law must apply – Part II

If we accept that the Rule of Law must apply equally (as per yesterday’s blog), that will also apply to parades and protests, and to Ministers.

The latter is important. I have long argued that an independent panel is required to enforce the Ministerial Code. One of the main reasons for this is that there have been clear cases over the past three years or so of Ministers breaching the requirement under that Code to support the PSNI. As a result, the PSNI do not have cover to enforce the law – resulting in ludicrous cases stretching as far as the PSNI effectively apologising to paramilitary groups for doing so.

At the talks, all parties can agree to this, right?

Rule of Law must apply – part I

The absolute crux of the current problems with the “peace process” is that the Rule of Law does not apply equally.

As a first example, I scarcely need to blog at all, but to point to an article in Fermanagh’s Impartial Reporter. Warren Little points to an obvious example here, also noted by Seamus Mallon, that a complete blind eye has been turned to cross-border fuel smuggling.

One obvious outcome of the talks should be an acceptance by all parties that fuel smuggling will be stopped. This is, in effect, money taken out of public services and given to criminal gangs. That can no longer be tolerated. We all accept that, right?

NI should try democracy – real democracy

As it happens, I sympathised with the DUP’s call for an Assembly adjournment last week and I do so again today. The Assembly is dysfunctional, and it has reached the end of the road. It should be adjourned until it can function properly.

However, that requires not just a new structure, but a new culture. That new culture will require a new agreement, which will take rather more than four weeks. So be it. It is time to repair our political institutions properly, not just engage in quick fixes.

To repair the political institutions properly, we need to define the fundamental problem – or, to be specific, the fundamental cause of the problems.

I would suggest that the fundamental cause is this: we have not yet become a democracy.

This is a cultural thing, and it is founded upon the basic acceptance that in a democracy you make your case respectfully and peacefully to influence decisions and to be elected to make them. A cornerstone of this is that, on any given decision or in any given election, you may lose.

It remains the case that too many people involved in our current “democracy” do not accept this basic point that you may lose. The abuse of the petition of concern is an obvious example – for example, there is a clear majority in the popularly elected Assembly for moving forward with welfare reform but a Nationalist/Green petition of concern has stopped it; this failure to respect the clear majority is costing us public sector jobs, university places, voluntary sector programmes and so on. There are also more blatant examples – Unionist politicians were only too pleased to join with paramilitary leaders during protests (leading to inevitable mayhem and severe economic damage) against a democratic decision of Belfast City Council. It is absolutely fair and reasonable in a democracy to argue that a particular decision is wrong (including through organised protest), and indeed to pledge to overturn it if given the mandate to do so; however, it is not fair and reasonable in response to abuse the system to block the will of a democratically elected body or to take action which will inevitably lead to mayhem.

Most fundamentally of all, politicians continue to tell their “own side” that they should have preferential treatment; essentially that “democracy” is only for the other side. Thus Sinn Fein claims that “dedicated Republicans and supporters of the peace process” should never be arrested (and they often get their way – Seamus Mallon is quite right to be surprised no one has ever been arrested for cross-border fuel smuggling); and Unionists claim that gangland murders carried out by “Republicans” are a particular problem, whereas those carried out by anyone else are irrelevant (and indeed they are quite happy to make common cause, even as part of a single Assembly or Council group, with representatives of active paramilitary groups as long as they are on the right “side”).

So, what do we do?

We talk.

But we do not just talk; we have a clear agenda for those talks. That agenda has three items – and here I have some sympathy with the Ulster Unionists (notwithstanding their outrageous hypocrisy and sectarian bias on the issue, noted above), because the first item on that agenda has to be removing paramilitary influence from politics and policing. The second should be reform of the institutions so that decisions of the popularly elected Assembly stand even if some oppose them (most obviously in the form of a proper opposition, but that is by no means the only issue – we need a cultural shift to accepting that sometimes democratic decisions go against you, as well as towards greater general transparency). The third should be a financial and economic agreement – even if the first two options could be delivered, it is impossible for democracy to function if the electorate is not given a clear choice between realistic options about what they need to pay into the pot for public services and how much funding is available for them (put simply, there is a choice between higher public spending and higher taxes on one hand, or lower public spending and lower taxes on the other).

It is disappointing that, 17 years on from the Agreement, we will still need the two Governments to come and hold our hand through this process, but it is obvious we do. Northern Ireland is only nominally a democracy; we have not yet developed a democratic culture where people make the link between those they elect and the quality of policy and services they receive, and where debates are had fairly and decisions are made clearly.

In other words, we still need help to become a democracy – a real democracy. It will take more than four weeks.

Labour’s target is England, not Scotland

It is well known that, of the 59 seats in Scotland at the 2015 UK General Election, the SNP won 56 and the three main UK parties just one each.

However, in the East of England region (broadly the northern Home Counties plus East Anglia) there were 58 seats contested, of which Labour mustered just four. The Conservatives took 52 – a dominance of a level very close to the SNP’s in Scotland.

In the south of England it was the same story – of 55 seats in the West Country and Cornwall, the Conservatives took 51 to Labour’s four; of the 84 seats on the South Coast and southern Home Counties the Conservatives took 78 to Labour’s four.

Therefore, in the south of England outside London, the Conservatives’ dominance and Labour’s annihilation was almost as complete as the SNP’s in Scotland – three times over!

Scotland is an irrelevance to Labour for three main reasons. Firstly, the seats they lost there actually went to potential partners not to the direct opponent (at UK level). Secondly, there is no historical or comparative electoral evidence to suggest the shift in Scotland is anything other than semi-permanent (in other words, Scotland is now the SNP’s to lose, not Labour’s to gain). Thirdly, it is just 59 seats (52 after prospective constituency changes in 2018), less than a third of the number available in the south of England even excluding London.

The other obvious problem is that, in any case, the message they would need to put forward to have any chance in Glasgow would probably be the opposite of the message required in Gloucestershire. Labour is, in any case, trapped in Scotland – seen to be Unionist only because it needs Scottish seats for a UK majority, something which makes the Scots feel they are being taken for granted and the English feel they are being unrepresented. In other words, it is a pincer movement and Labour needs to pick a side, at least covertly, to avoid being taken out in both directions – and the numbers favour England.

As I wrote last week, there are all kinds of places in the south of England which should be a natural home for Labour. If it can win in run-down East Ham, why can it not win in run-down Hastings? If it can win in social liberal Islington, why can it not win in social liberal Brighton? If it can win in aspirational Ealing, why can it not win in aspirational Reading? If it is gaining seats in Enfield, why is it losing them in Southampton? These are obvious questions, yet the party is so obsessed with Scotland (as well as with destroying its own legacy in government through factional infighting) that it has forgotten even to pose them.

England constitutes 84% of the electorate. A party which aspires to govern the UK will have to – constitutionally as well as electorally – aspire to win in England. That, and nothing else, must be Labour’s prime target.

Ulster Unionists do right thing – for wrong reason

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Police need more resources to keep our roads safe

The death toll on our roads thus far in 2015 has been lower than 2014 but higher than every other year this decade. Through 2013, Northern Ireland actually had the safest roads in the world this decade, but has fallen back to the pack over the past eighteen months or so.


Safe roads are about three ‘E’s – education, engineering and enforcement. There is no evidence the first two of these have changed; I would guess (but am happy to be corrected) that the education programmes are the same as they were when I was more directly involved in their design ten years ago; and engineering of roads continues to advance despite cutbacks – new expressways and dual carriageways have carried on at perhaps even an enhanced rate since 2012 or so, and basic additions such as safety barriers continue to be put in place.

That leaves enforcement. And it turns out, when it comes to enforcement, there has been a marked decline. I would prefer not to promote the numbers too specifically, but essentially the level of human resources for police enforcement of the rules of the road is now only two thirds of what it was.

The problem is that reducing enforcement by a third actually has a worse effect than just making our roads a third less safe. As Wesley Johnston has pointed out many times, it leads to a breakdown in the basic “social contract” whereby road users agree to stick by the rules (broadly) even when the odds are that they will not be caught breaking them.

The obvious example for many Belfast commuters will be the “urban clearway”. Every evening without exception it is quicker to walk countrybound along the Lisburn Road from City Hospital to Musgrave than drive (or arguably even cycle), because one of the two available vehicle lanes is blocked. It only takes one parked car to do this (although invariably there are more). People carelessly (and selfishly and dangerously) leave their cars in a location which will cause misery to hundreds of commuters (not least already vulnerable cyclists), knowing that they will never ever be caught because the clearway regulations are never enforced. Without any enforcement at all, the “social contract” whereby people agree to park sensibly is breached completely.

However, move this out to the country and I certainly do see, and hear anecdotally, that people are speeding up again and, specifically in my experience, that overtaking manoeuvres are becoming more ludicrous. As there develops a greater sense that the odds of being caught are receding towards absolute zero, this inevitably becomes more and more the case. With barely any enforcement at all, the “social contract” whereby people agree to drive at sensible speeds while not taking daft risks is breached completely.

The result of fewer resources is less enforcement; and the result of less enforcement is a demonstrably higher road casualty rate. This is a direct correlation and it is not good enough. Resources must be put pack to at least 90% of what they were without delay.


Firstly, the PSNI is to be commended for the highly professional way in which it has managed the reduction in available budget (it has done this far more effectively than government departments are doing it), but it should allocate resources more sensibly within traffic operations. A police presence is only evident on motorways (the safest roads, notwithstanding a tragic exception yesterday morning), where it is needed on rural single carriageways (the most dangerous). The occasional patrol car or even bike is all that is really necessary, but it is a long time since I saw any at all. It is easy and comfortable to stick a car on a motorway bridge or hard shoulder, but ineffective – putting them alongside rural single carriageways will maximise the effect on safety, renewing the “social contract” where it counts.

Secondly, specific resources should be made available from government departments, notably currently DoE which has responsibility for road safety (and very little else, post-local government reform), and whose resource-limited publicity campaigns are evidently having little effect. If that means taking budgets from anywhere else or raising rates, so be it – government’s first responsibility is to keep people safe and ineffective traffic enforcement makes them unsafe. Ministers tend to forget it, but departments have a responsibility for the “social contract”.

Thirdly, there should be targeted, visible use of cameras on notably high casualty routes. Lest anyone doubt these, the visibility alone on the Belfast-Bangor road reduced average speeds on it by 7mph – a road on which an average three people died every year became almost casualty-free. As long as there is reason given for the location, and the objective of reducing speed (rather than catching people) is clear, the “social contract” will be renewed.

Finally, there should be periodic blitzes at certain locations which even local communities could help to fund, for example to ensure clearways are adhered to. It would help traders on the Lisburn Road, for example, if it did not become a car park at 4pm every weekday evening. There is a “social contract” in all sorts of ways there!

Inadequate traffic enforcement is costing lives. It is time to act.

Linguistic proof ancients gave birth on their knees

The words “kin”, “knee” and “gynaecology” are all related. It does not appear obvious at first sight, but think about the pronunciation, particularly the original as guided by the spelling, and it becomes more obvious.

“Kin” and “knee” are both basic Germanic words and, of course, the latter was originally pronounced with the leading “k-“. Add that in, and it is easy to hear that they sound alike. They are, in fact, from the same root.

“Gynae-” is a prefix from Ancient Greek but ultimately from the same Indo-European root as “kin” and “knee”. The initial hard “g-” is merely a voiced “k-” (or the other way around, depending on how you want to look at it).

Why would a word referring to family linkage (“kin”) be linked to a word referring to a part of the body (“knee”) and to a word indicating female (“gynae-“)?

Easy. The ancient Indo-European women (“gynae-“) gave birth (to their “kin”) on their “knees”. All three were obviously linked, therefore, and language supported that.

Ugh! But this is backed up by historical references, from the Bible to Roman scrolls suggesting that giving birth on knees is humiliating and should be stopped (and thus was still the norm, at least among some).

Never doubt the power of linguistics – or the desirability of social advances!

Left must stop blame game and deliver solutions

One of the things which struck me in the response to last week’s post on the Left’s abandonment of the actual working class was the unwillingness to engage by many Left-leaning respondents, to the extent that I came to believe they do not want to solve problems, but merely assign blame for them.

A classic case is some of the larger Trade Unions. Their failure to abandon the outright “anti-austerity” rhetoric, which even an internal Labour report has found to be out of step with an electorate which actually recognises the need for fiscal responsibility, has led to a decline in influence and membership.

In May, for the first time in 60-80 years (depending on precise definition), centre-right to right-wing parties received an outright majority of the vote in Great Britain. That has been the outcome of the anti-work, anti-austerity agenda. People do not actually agree with it.

In the end, successful politicians, as I also wrote last week, will do two things: firstly, they will recognise they are not always right; and secondly, they will learn to compromise in order to secure a winning coalition.

I am not sure the Left does not realise this. Frankly, I think the deeper problem is that most on the Left don’t want to win. It’s far easier to blame others for problems, than to take actual responsibility for solving them in the real world – the real world where actually work is the route out of poverty, and where fiscal responsibility is obviously necessary.

Left has given up on working class

It is now almost a weekly thing to see someone somewhere reel off the statistic that “more than half of people experiencing poverty are in work”, with the (implicit or explicit) point being to reject the notion that work is a fundamental route out of poverty. Such nonsense is plain dangerous.

Let us firstly simply reverse their point, noting that the comfortable majority of working age people are in work and defining “poverty” as “relative poverty”: the vast majority of people in work are not in poverty, and the vast majority who are not in work are in poverty.

Put in that way, and we can see immediately that work is absolutely fundamental to escaping poverty, however defined. This is not just because it provides an income, but it also provides self-esteem, social networks, and the potential for further aspiration – few to none of which are available to those trapped on out-of-work benefits. The primary gain of work is not financial, but social – anyone who doubts that, should read this article about an entire community of compensated jobless.

It is deeply troubling that those who claim to be on the “Left” refuse to see this obvious point. Rather than giving people a helping hand out of poverty, they merely want to compensate them for being in poverty and thus leave them trapped. It is pathetic.

Yet this dangerous nonsense is almost becoming mainstream. Even courses on advising people who are on benefits or in debt suggest that advisers should recommend “tapping up family members” before they suggest finding a job (or even a second job). The focus is entirely on where money can be attained rather than where it can be earned; this is bad for the taxpayer (or family member), but we need to be clear it is even worse for the individual concerned. To promote a dependency culture in this way is nothing short of callous.

(Oh, and as for “there are no jobs” – unemployment is only 6% and, here in Northern Ireland, one of our foremost companies, Almac, has just announced it cannot fill all the positions it is creating.)

Work is the route out of poverty. It is time the “Left” remembered it is supposed to stand up for workers!


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