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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!

Want more money for public services? Have the guts to raise it…

Since the financial crisis started in late 2007, public spending in Northern Ireland has risen (even in real terms), and taxes have fallen (even in absolute terms). That is a straightforward fact.

“Austerity” is a word which has come to be much abused, because the seeds of that financial crisis were that we had become greedy in the Western World (and particularly in the Anglosphere), buying things we had not earned with money we had not got – in other words, we were not living austerely enough. Arguably most prominent among the parties challenging this greed were the Greens. They suggested most obviously that we use less fuel (thus not only drive and fly less, but also trade less, for example going back to eating solely in-season fruit rather that flying it around the world), but also that we live off our own resources (one member in North Belfast even grew his own tea in his house on the Ballysillan Road) – in other words, that we should live more austerely.

For whatever reason, “austerity” has come instead to mean a reduction in the balance between public spending and taxes raised. Many countries, such as Ireland, both reduced public spending and increased taxes – a clear case of “austerity” on this new, financial definition. However, here is the thing: Northern Ireland did not.

We should note again, as above, that Northern Ireland on the contrary had the precise opposite of austerity. Public spending has risen, no matter how measured, while almost every form of tax has fallen (Northern Ireland household taxes such as rates have been frozen, thus reducing markedly in real terms; UK corporation tax has fallen eight points; and UK income tax bands see the average earner paying £600 less in income tax each year now than eight years ago).

As The Detail and others have pointed out, what frustrates MLAs hanging out the begging bowl is that the amount of money they have, under NI Executive control, has fallen in real terms (though not, in fact, in absolute). That is true. The welfare bill in Northern Ireland has risen markedly (as it has elsewhere in the UK), and the money has to come from somewhere – if it is not coming from rising taxes, it will have to come in part from borrowing and in part from other services. Even in terms of current resource spending on public services, it should be noted that County Councils in England have had it much worse than Stormont or Holyrood have.

This brings us to the real point. If welfare spending is rising, the money has to come from somewhere; if you want welfare spending to rise even further for “mitigation”, as supposedly agreed at Stormont House, that is even more money which will have to come from somewhere. There are two options – it can be taken from other public services, or it can be taken in raised taxes.

Quite frankly, MLAs need to stop moaning. Firstly, we don’t have “austerity” by any definition. Secondly, we have a generous settlement. Thirdly, most of all, if you want more money for public services, have the guts to raise it!

71 “likes” for pure bigoted hatred

imageOh dear.

The only thing worse than the fact that this piece of pure bigoted hatred received 71 likes is that no one in authority will care.

Indeed, our largest political parties, covertly or even overtly, thrive on the division which breeds the ignorance which breeds the fear which breeds the hatred.

The PSNI can easily find out who lies behind these comments. It is already troubling that I am doubtful whether they will bother, despite the fact it is a clear hate crime.

Far worse is the fact that people who possibly weren’t even born at the time of the Agreement would even think the things which appear in that exchange.

At the most basic level, our community relations are nowhere. For all the niceties at high civic level, the sheer scale of the hatred on display is frightening.

A calamity on finance, but even worse a calamity on community relations, it is time for a complete reboot.

Where’s that vehicle from?

It is summer, and many of us will be off on holiday. By request of one equally nerdy reader, how do we tell where fellow holidaymakers are from by their vehicle registration?



Firstly, most European countries now have a blue tag to the left, with a code representing the country. This code always works in French, English or the native language (often two of these, sometimes all three): so, above, is “France” and NL is “Netherlands”.

It so happens that in the above two cases, we cannot tell anything further about the origin of the vehicle (that is, other than which country it is from).

France recently switched to the LL-DDD-LL system (black on white; where ‘L’ is a letter and ‘D’ a digit) which simply rotates in series (so the later the first two letters, the newer the car, generally). However, owners are allowed to place a further blue tag to the right, marking their preferred department (“00” above is just an example plate, department numbers in Mainland France run from 01 to 96, in alphabetical order with some minor exceptions). Previous plates in France, which typically had the inverse series of digits and letters (typically DDDDLLDD or occasionally DDDLLLDD) contained this code in the final two digits at the end of the plate and it was compulsory to register the car in the Department of residence – thus 2734TN06 was from 06 (Cote d’Azur; the far south east); 429DRL75 was from 75 (Ile-de-France; Paris, in other words). The older plates are still valid, and are seen in various colours (black, yellow/white or white).

The Netherlands has been through various series, but has never in recent decades distinguished area of origin. Old series such as LL-LL-DD or LL-DD-LL have now finished, and DD-LLL-D is now current (the total is always six digits or letters and two hyphens). Distinct plates are used for trailers. Dutch plates are marked out for their distinctive dark yellow/orange colour.

The only other Continental country notable for yellow plates is Luxembourg (code L), which consist of up to two letters and a short number in series.

Several other countries also do not mark origin and simply run in series:

images (1)

Italy (code I) uses similar plates to France (in fact it introduced them earlier), and in a similar fashion allows a provincial code to the right (although this option is more rarely taken up in practice). The distinction from France is that the second hyphen is omitted, thus LL-DDDLL (as opposed to LL-DDD-LL), and that the front plate is much narrower. Previous to 1994, it had used the provincial code (two letters – thus MI-Milano; BZ-Bolzano etc) plus six digits or a series of digits and letters. Motorbikes have different plates.

Spain (code E) also has white plates and also switched, in 2000, from provincial codes to no origin. In its case, plates are DDDDLLL; there is no formal regional identifier but some owners, notably in Catalonia and the Basque County, add one. Previously, they contained the provincial code (GR-Granada; B-Barcelona) plus up to four digits and two letters, although the provincial code never changed even if the owner moved or the car was sold to a different province. Codes from the Spanish Islands or North African territories were common because tax rates on cars purchased there were deemed outside the EU, and were thus lower.


Portugal (code P) also uses non-identifiable plates, similar to those of the Netherlands but white with the current series DD-DD-LL, and these are strictly licence plates (marking, in a yellow panel to the right, when the vehicle is licensed until).


Belgium (code B) is distinct in two ways; firstly, the print is red (or black-green on trailers) not black; secondly, until recently the owner was automatically allowed to keep the plate (so the plate went with the owner, not the car). The old system was typically LLL-DDD on American-size plates; European standard plates have now been introduced with a leading digit, typically ‘1’ (though ‘8’ is used for European Union institutions).

Denmark (code DK) also has a red outline, but the print is black; its series is LL-DDDDD and has recently restarted (thus recent vehicles are typically A*, whereas older vehicles are V* etc.); Denmark’s system is confusing as it also allows yellow plates for commercial vehicles and even half-yellow half-white for vehicles used partly for commercial purposes (commercial use attracts less tax, so owners do pursue as much yellow as possible!)

Sweden (code S), Lithuania (code LT) and Hungary (code H) all use the series LLL-DDD, and are extremely hard to tell apart. Sweden’s used to be distinguishable by a tax mark where the hyphen was which changed colour each year, but this has been abandoned. Finland (code now FIN; previously SF) also uses LLL-DDD; these are allocated in such a way to try to avoid any clash with Sweden’s, and are narrower and thus easier to distinguish from the other three.

Estonia (code EST) is just about distinct from the previous four as its plates are DDD-LLL. Latvia (code LV) uses LL-DDDD.


Other countries, however, do further distinguish a place of origin (i.e. beyond just the country itself), most obviously Germany (code D) whose plates are probably the most famous in the world. Here, up to three letters are used to mark the Kreis (district) of registration, then a hyphen (which consists of a licence mark and the badge of the State of residence) and then LDDDD or LLDDD. Until this year, it was compulsory upon selling the car or moving to another district to change the plate; this is now optional, meaning that it is no longer certain the vehicle is currently resident in the district referred to. Codes used for districts are also wildly varying and change when districts merge (with older ones still in use if the vehicle has not moved). There are further subtleties in some cases too; occasionally the same letter is used for a city and for the surrounding area, but you can tell them apart by the exact nature of the second part of the plate (i.e. whether LDDDD or LLDDD). There is also no particular rhyme or reason to the code – sometimes it refers to the district capital (for example Lauenburg/Elbe is RZ for ‘Ratzeburg’) but sometimes to the district name (so V for Vogtlandkreis or MTK for Main-Taunus-Kreis); generally single letters are used for larger cities (B is indeed Berlin) but Dortmund (DO) is bigger than Duesseldorf (D) and the second largest city opted for two letters for historical reasons (HH for Hansestadt Hamburg). There was also a significant re-allocation at unification, as although initially codes had been reserved for cities in the Soviet zone of occupation, they had begun to be re-allocated upon recognition of the East German State in the 1970s. The above plate, for reference, is IN for Ingolstadt, frequently seen on magazine covers as that is the home of ‘Audi’ – notable also are S for Stuttgart (Mercedes-Benz and Porsche); M for Munich/Muenchen (BMW) and WOB for Wolfsburg (Volkswagen).

Similar to Germany is Austria (code A), although the red outer lines appear on its plates (similar to Denmark’s) and generally the second part of the plate (after the hyphen) is inverted; most of its nine provinces have DDLL or DDDLL; Vienna (whose own code is W for Wien) usually has DDDDDL.

Slovenia (code SLO) has almost identical plates to Austria (even the font is the same) but the outer lines are green, not red, and the hyphen tends to be an actual hyphen (as opposed to a provincial badge).


Norway (code N) has a similar arrangement to Denmark (i.e. LL-DDDDD), but in its case the letters do mark the county of registration. However, they do so in random series, so in reality this is only helpful if you happen to have the list to hand. Of course, Norway is outside the EU, so no EU stars (even though the blue tag is now typical).


Also outside the EU is Switzerland (whose Latin-based code CH tends not to appear on the plates themselves), which has retained the old Italian system of two letters for the canton of origin (there are in effect 26 of these) and a number of up to six digits – above, BE is Bern(e). The numbers have run out now in some larger cantons, which are introducing a final letter to compensate. Notable also is the Swiss preference for square plates on the back (but these revert to the European standard on the front), with in each case a badge for the confederation (i.e. Switzerland itself) to the left and for the canton to the right.

Some interesting further notes on Swiss plates in comments below.


Not to be confused with Switzerland is the Czech Republic (code CZ), whose initial digit does give the region of origin, although the system is now very complex. The system of DLL-DDDD is broadly retained from the old Czechoslovakia.

Slovakia (code SK) itself retained the same plates for a long time after separation, but now has big bolder font and a simplified regional identifier of two letters which in fact makes the overall plate look very similar to modern Italian plates (thus LL-DDDLL where the first ‘LL’ is the regional identifier, e.g. BA is ‘Bratislava’, and the hyphen is now usually the national badge).


Very similar to Slovakia is Croatia (code HR Hrvatska‘), distinguished only by its second hyphen and of course the different national badge (the red and white checks familiar to football fans at least). Again, the first two letters are a regional identifier (ST is ‘Split’).


Poland (code PL) used to have distinctive black plates but switched to white soon after the end of Communism. The plates do contain regional identifiers at the start, but exactly how they do this is really anyone’s guess – there are two or three letters before the hyphen as regional identifiers, and then various combinations allowable in series after it.

Across Europe there are of course smaller countries too, which tend to have smaller plates: Monaco (MC), San Marino (RSM) and Andorra (AND) all have small white plates with only a number or a single letter followed by a number; Liechtenstein (FL) has distinctive black plates but designed similarly to Switzerland’s, all carrying the code FL.


As a quick reminder, closer to home Great Britain (code GB often unmarked on the plate itself) specifically now has LLDD LLL where the first two letters are a regional identifier (although these never change) and the two digits mark the half-year of registration. Thus, above, LK is ‘London-Stanmore’ (the ‘L’ tells you ‘London’; the ‘K’ randomly specifies ‘Stanmore’); and ’53’ is the period from September 2003 to February 2004 (preceded by ’03’, succeeded by ’04’, then ’54’, then ’05’, then ’55’ etc; changing each 1 March and 1 September). The first letter of the regional identifiers are usually fairly obvious (B is Birmingham, is Scotland, etc). Before late 2001, Great Britain had a system LDDD LLL where the initial ‘L’ marked the year (from 1963; or, from 1999, half-year) of registration, and the last two letters marked the county or city of registration (there was a system, but it was complex and the letters were as good as random). Previous systems, such as LLL DDDL or even LLL DDD or DDD LLL and such like remain in use on personalised plates.

Northern Ireland in effect retains the pre-2001 Great Britain system but without the year identifier, simply LLL DDDD where the last two letters mark the county or city or registration (the latest for Belfast is ‘FZ‘, for Antrim is ‘RZ‘, for Down ‘JZ‘ and so on); this identifier code typically ends in ‘Z‘ but in some smaller counties and cities contains instead an ‘I‘ (originally marking ‘Ireland’).

Among UK territories, Gibraltar (GBZ), Jersey (GBJ) and Alderney (GBA) all have yellow back and white front plates UK-style with their initial letter plus a long number or a number plus single letter; Guernsey (GBG) has only a number, no initial letter, and now seems to prefer black plates). The Isle of Man (GBM) has what looks like UK-style plates though often with a different Irish-style font, typically LLL-DDD-L with the combination ‘MN’ or ‘MAN’ somewhere present.

UK plates are in general distinguished by their colour (yellow back and white front) and the fact the plate is printed differently (with the letters/digits already on, as opposed to stamped on as is the case typically in Continental Europe).


Of all the countries in Europe, only one exceeds eight digits/letters collectively on the plate, and that is Ireland (IRL) – otherwise, now, only Germany even exceeds seven (and even then only rarely). It broke from the old UK system in 1987 with a straightforward two-digit year marker, plus a code for city (one letter) or county (two letters; typically first and last except where there is a clash) and then a serial number. In 2013, it added a further digit to the initial cluster, a ‘1’ for the first six months of the year, and a ‘2’ for the second six months; a re-organisation of local government also saw Tipperary violate convention and take the single-letter code ‘T‘; above, KE is ‘Kildare’.

So, short of seeing a van from South Africa (code, ahem, ZA) or a truck from Turkmenistan (er, TM I think), you’re all set… although that does happen, you know…

NI parties put ideology first, evidence nowhere

I had understood there was a project under way in Northern Ireland this year promoting “evidence-based policy making”, but it has not made itself evident. Instead, even the better elected representatives are being dragged down into Stormont’s crazy Fantasyland.

One MLA had an article in the Belfast Telegraph on Monday suggesting, if my understanding of it was correct, that the “voluntary exit” scheme was an opportunity to pay the “Living Wage” to all civil servants. The article made no mention of how many civil servants are not currently on the “Living Wage” and would thus stand to gain from this – which is a shame, because a series of Assembly Questions in late 2014 revealed the figure. It was zero.

This point is on the public record within the Assembly itself – a series of questions to another MLA last year established it.

It is true that this figure does not include Health Trusts or such like, staffed strictly speaking by public servants rather than civil servants (but there is no reason to believe they are any different). The average public sector wage in Northern Ireland is the same as it is in Great Britain; but, interestingly, the average wage in the junior grades is actually higher in Northern Ireland. So there is no reason to believe that any public sector workers at all in Northern Ireland are on below Living Wage (especially as “discretionary” low-wage services such as cleaning offices are being phased out), and if there are any it is a tiny number (and indeed, no reason not to fix that as it would cost almost nothing).

So, in terms of the public sector (the one affected by the “voluntary exit scheme”), this is literally a non-issue.

The difficulty I have with this is that the MLA involved had clearly chosen not even to seek any evidence before making his case. He simply put a pre-existing ideology on to an issue without any regard for the actual facts. It is hard to come up with real-world solutions if you cannot even assess correctly the real-world problems.

The real-world problem is the precise contrary to the one implied in the article. Two essential points were missed – no doubt because they did not suit the left-leaning and frankly simplistic ideology the article sought to articulate. Firstly, the “voluntary exit scheme” is necessitated by the very fact that public sector workers will not tolerate lower wages here than in Great Britain, leaving the only option available a reduction in public sector jobs (the assumption that jobs should go before wages is arguable either way, but that is the debate we should be having). Secondly, to be totally straightforward about this, low pay is an issue in the private sector, not the public (and so it is increasing private sector pay, unmentioned in the article, which is the real priority here).

On the first of these, it remains a bizarre trait of those who claim to be of the “left” that they continue to focus the pay argument around those who are the best paid. A family of public sector workers in Northern Ireland not only takes home the same average pay as their equivalent in Great Britain, but actually pays far lower household taxes – leaving it, on average, around 7% better off (and still gaining from above-average spend on public services). A family of private sector workers, on the other hand, will on average be 12% worse off even after those lower household taxes. Why on earth is the “left” so obsessed with the former and so ignorant of the latter?!

On the second, the worst issue about all of this is that politicians are desperate to pretend there are simple answers to complex problems. It is, after all, easy to say “the private sector should pay more”; the problem is that Northern Ireland is overburdened with industries which are becoming unproductive faster than those which predominate elsewhere in the UK and Ireland; and an inevitable consequence of that lack of productivity is stalled growth and ever lower wages (comparatively). To put this right requires a complete re-shaping of the Northern Ireland economy away from low-value, (increasingly) unproductive sectors.

Re-shaping the economy away from low-value, unproductive sectors? That sounds, you know, hard! No votes in hard stuff! Never mind the evidence, let us just agree it is much easier to moan about “banks” and suggest people who are already paying the “Living Wage” should, er, pay the “Living Wage”… while the people who are really low paid continue to suffer.


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