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#LE19 Northern Ireland’s Council elections – preview

Thursday sees Northern Ireland’s second set of Local Council Elections under the current boundaries, with 462 Councillors to be elected from 80 District Electoral Areas (DEAs; each electing between five and seven) to 11 Councils.

Each of the 80 DEAs are effectively separate contests, but there are clear geographic distinctions across Northern Ireland.

Councils

I have noted before on this blog that the swing in Unionism from Ulster Unionist to DUP (often via “Other Unionist”) which started around the time of the Agreement was initially much more pronounced on the North Coast (broadly, areas of Scottish settlement) and in urban areas (obviously Greater Belfast and particularly the City Council area) than it was in the southern border areas (areas of predominantly English settlement).

It was only in the re-aligning Stormont and Westminster elections of 2017, clearly therefore after the last Council elections, that the DUP also became clearly the lead Unionist party across Down, Armagh, South Tyrone and Fermanagh.

As we come to understand the picture of the 2019 elections, therefore, it is perhaps this that we need to watch. As above, if you split the 2014 results into five geographical areas – what we might call Belfast City (the Belfast City Council area); Outer Greater Belfast (Antrim/Newtownabbey, Lisburn/Castlereagh and Ards/North Down); Down/Armagh (Newry/Mourne/Down and Armagh/Banbridge/Craigavon); Mid/West Ulster (Mid Ulster, Fermanagh/Omagh and Derry/Strabane); and Antrim/North Coast (Causeway Coast/Glens and Mid/East Antrim).

Council names are still extraordinarily silly, by the way. The difficulty arises from a requirement that no new Council name could incorporate any element of the past Council name except if all elements were incorporated. The result is daft. If we remove that requirement, something like Belfast; Sixmilewater; Clandeboye-Downshire; Clandeboye-Ards; Mourne; Armagh-Iveagh; Mid Ulster; Fermanagh-Strule; Foyle; Causeway-Glens and Mid-East Antrim would be much more straightforward.

When we look at the results (taking the five main parties) in those five broader areas, an intriguing picture of the first preference vote from 2014 emerges:

Belfast City

Sinn Fein 29.2% (19 seats); DUP 19.0% (13); Alliance 11.4% (8); SDLP 10.0% (7); UU 9.0% (7).

Outer Greater Belfast

DUP 36.1% (52); UU 18.4% (29); Alliance 12.7% (18); SDLP 6.9% (8); Sinn Fein 5.9% (3).

Down/Armagh

Sinn Fein 28.4% (22); SDLP 21.5% (20); UU 19.7% (15); DUP 16.8% (17); Alliance 2.9% (2).

Mid/West Ulster

Sinn Fein 39.0% (51); SDLP 17.9% (24); DUP 15.9% (21); UU 15.1% (18); Alliance 1.3% (0).

Antrim/North Coast

DUP 30.0% (27); UU 17.9% (19); Sinn Fein 12.6% (10); SDLP 8.4% (6); Alliance 6.6% (4).

In Greater Belfast broadly (so Belfast City Council and the three which surround it), there is no reason not to expect the line-up to remain more or less the same. The likelihood, given the trends over the past five years, is that versus 2014 the DUP, Sinn Fein and Alliance will strengthen a little and the SDLP and Ulster Unionists decline a little, but only in ways reasonably foreseeable.

Likewise in Antrim/North Coast, we may probably expect the same trend to the extent that Sinn Fein may end up roughly level with the Ulster Unionists and Alliance perhaps ahead of the SDLP. However, again this is reasonably predictable.

In Down/Armagh and the southern part of Mid/West Ulster it becomes much more difficult to predict anything with confidence, because here the Ulster Unionists were ahead (in fact, often well ahead) of the DUP. In Fermanagh in 2014, the Ulster Unionists outpolled the DUP by almost 2:1; across rural Tyrone the gap was much narrower, but the Ulster Unionists were still clearly ahead; the Ulster Unionists were the largest party by first preference vote in Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon beating the DUP almost 2:1 again in the DEAs of Armagh and Banbridge and largely holding their own elsewhere. This pattern was repeated, almost slightly more to the advantage of the DUP, in 2016 but then shattered in 2017 (when the Ulster Unionists lost their Assembly seats in South Down, Newry/Armagh and Mid-Ulster at Assembly level and clung on to seats in Upper Bann and Fermanagh/South Tyrone only after being outpolled 2:1 by the DUP in constituencies they had previously been polling almost level).

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Therefore, while the media focus will be on Belfast (which will suit me as I expect Alliance to do rather well there) and perhaps on what happens to the SDLP after the Fianna Fail link-up, in many ways the story of the election will be in the southern border Council areas. If the Ulster Unionists can at least challenge to stay ahead in places such as Banbridge, Armagh and Fermanagh, then there may be some basis for a future revival at Assembly level; however, if the swing in the Council elections matches that at Stormont and Westminster, it will constitute an existential crisis.

The most interesting thing north of Lough Neagh is how many DEAs the SDLP will not be contesting – almost the entirety of the Mid & East Antrim council area and also the Ballymoney DEA, where it ran two candidates last time. These are complete withdrawals from places where the SDLP has won Assembly seats in the not overly distant past. Overall, the SDLP is running candidates in only 61 of the 80 DEAs (whereas even Alliance is contesting 72), meaning over a fifth of the population will have no SDLP candidate to vote for at all.

It will be interesting to see also if this is matched on the Nationalist side, where the SDLP had often held its own in areas where Ulster Unionists polled well (although this geographical link is inexact). In large parts of southern Co Down, from the Ards Peninsula down to the western Mournes (and most notably in Downpatrick, where the SDLP polled exactly half the vote in 2014) the question arises whether Sinn Fein’s gains will match those in 2017 (notably when it took the South Down Westminster seat so comfortably).

In many ways, therefore, it is to the south of Lough Neagh where the real story of these elections will be told.

 

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“Liberals” need to work out how to oppose appalling populism more positively

We humans are emotional beings. It makes us all the more interesting. Most of the best things in life are emotional (and irrational) after all – from romantic love to supporting a sports team. These things do not make sense when considered in a reasoned way, but they are what drive our passions and thus they are the basis of our art, our music and our culture.

Psychologically some would suggest we human beings fall broadly into one of two categories – fast-mode or slow-mode thinker. 

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This brings us not to Brexit (though it very well could), but to a recent leaflet sent around the Botanic DEA of Belfast by one of the DUP candidates for the forthcoming local election.

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To me and to almost anyone in my social circle, this leaflet is clearly appalling. However, almost everyone in my social circle is a “slow-mode” thinker when it comes to such things.

To a “fast-mode” thinker when it comes to politics, on the other hand, that leaflet is so appalling as to be likely to work. After all, a “fast-mode” thinker might say, are we seriously suggesting local homes shouldn’t go to local people? That we shouldn’t control immigration? That there shouldn’t be more funding for Loyalist areas in need? 

The fast, automatic, unconscious response to such a leaflet is in fact to agree with it instinctively. From any sort of Unionist viewpoint, make any of the proposals negative and they are clearly wrong. This is why groups whose governmental record is atrocious but whose electoral record is good resort to such leaflets at election time – they draw the fast, automatic, unconscious response to agree, and thus they win support and votes (enabling them to continue to make a mess in government but get away with it electorally).

From a slow-mode thinker’s point of view, such a leaflet is extraordinarily difficult to counter, for two prime reasons. Firstly, those of us who engage with politics (and thus in “slow-mode” thought around political issues) and thus make the effort to consider the complexities of such things can see the appalling reality of what such a leaflet is trying to achieve – just a little reflection on it has us recognising that segregating society into “in-groups” and “out-groups” (and setting one against the other for apparently finite resources), exactly as that leaflet intends, rarely has happy consequences. Secondly, and worse still, we arrive at that conclusion so quickly (given our experience as “slow-mode” thinkers in politics) that we simply cannot comprehend how anyone else would not arrive at it. What a “slow-mode” thinker sees as obvious, a “fast-mode” thinker simply does not see at all – and vice-versa. 

Ultimately, most people are too busy to spend vast amounts of time thinking about politics. That is for others to do (hence they often disparage “politicians” as a group, despite being responsible for electing them – politicians are supposed to be trusted to get on with their job while the res tof us get on with ours). This is a fundamental division which populists are brilliant at exploiting. They play to pre-conceptions (and worse) to deliver emotional appeals to “fast-mode” thinking which, without pause for consideration, seem obvious and incontrovertible. Slogans such as “Take back control” or “Make America Great Again” are perfect for this, appealing additionally to a sense of loss and an instinctive desire to put things right without really having to spend time thinking about the hows and whys. 

“Liberals”, often academics or professionals who spend longer comtemplating government and politics, have not even yet worked out what is happening as they simply cannot comprehend the appeal of electoral slogans and promises which, to “slow-mode” thinking, are so obviously wrong. Furthermore, they also find it harder to deliver the same sort of unity the populists seem (initially at least) able to rely on. As “slow-mode” thinkers with regard to politics, these Liberals fall out with each other over details (last year the British Liberal Democrats even managed to lose one of their 12 remaining MPs over their European policy, previously their most defining and unifying policy area) and thus end up arguing with each other over minor side points. They have no influence over these minor side points anyway because, as political “slow-mode” thinkers, they cannot fathom the electoral appeal of cases made to “fast-mode” thinkers and thus keep losing elections.

I myself have no idea what the answer to this conundrum is, or I would long ago have shared it! What I do know is that political “slow-mode” thinkers have to get cuter than simply pointing to appalling leaflets and assuming that what is obvious to them will be obvious to everyone. My own suspicion is that “Liberals” will have to become less relentlessly negative, particularly apparently about those who engage in “fast-mode” thinking politically, and instead make appeals to them through more positive messaging on the key issues. For example, instead of pointing out how appalling an anti-immigration message is, they should attempt to sell immigration as a good thing; instead of pointing to the blatant sectarianism of prioritising only “Loyalist” areas in need, make the case for a deal for all areas in need and that they can achieve far more by working together rather than apart. Ultimately the task is to change the instinctive immediate response on issues such as immigration and sectarianism so those who have no time for political “slow-mode” thinking nevertheless share the instincts of those who have.

In short, “Liberals” too need to come to terms with the fact we are not primarily rational, but rather emotional animals. After all, that is what unites us and we are all the more interesting for it…

Updated slightly after a correspondent, who prefers to remain anonymous, linked to Kahneman hypothesis of “fast” versus “slow”; I am no psychologist but it is worth noting Kahneman’s early research was on “loss aversion” also referenced above as a key electoral driver, and that he also wrote extensively on the “illusion of control” (hence the success of the slogan).

#Brexit thread from November 2017

A Twitter thread I wrote on 16 November 2017 has begun attracting attention again – probably because so little of the Government’s thinking has meaningfully changed since! It ran like this…

This evening in Germany, David Davis has demonstrated a frankly humiliating misunderstanding of even the basics of the EU. A quick thread. 1/

Firstly, even if somehow Angela Merkel were scared that the German economy could be crippled by, er, not being able to export freely to a smaller country like the UK, she cannot intervene to offer the UK a special deal. No one can. 2/

Let us repeat: the EU is the Single Market and the Single Market is the EU. Let us also repeat: the Single Market is a market of *rules*. This is the fundamental point David Davis has still failed to grasp. 3/

For that reason, participation in the Single Market by any non-EU State is determined by which rules that State is willing to adopt. And that is the end of it.

(Norway adopts nearly all of them, for example; Moldova just a few.) 4/

David Davis therefore still hasn’t grasped that this negotiation is not “We give a bit, you give a bit”. It is essentially “Here are the rules of the Single Market; tell us which ones you no longer wish to apply and that will determine your level of participation in it.” 5/

This really should be obvious. How otherwise could a 27/28-member bloc function if it did not have *rules*? And those rules cannot be amended other than with the support of the whole bloc. 6/

This is all to leave quite aside that David Davis vastly overstates the UK’s economic importance. Germany sells many multiples more cars in China and the US, for example. That is a basic matter of fact. 7/

UK really should have worked out by now, more than halfway between Referendum Day and Brexit Day, that this whole “They’ll bend to our will” stuff is a *myth*. It can’t happen – and wouldn’t, even if it could. 8/

And for any UK Minister to go anywhere else and tell the locals not to put “politics before prosperity” is, right now, to set a new world record in gross hypocrisy. For that is precisely and embarrassingly what the UK alone is doing with #Brexit. 9/

David Davis’ call for co-operation in the interests of mutual prosperity was met with an obvious first question from a German journalist.

“If that is what you want, why are you leaving?”

Quite.

10/10

UK has profound crisis of government which goes beyond Brexit

I have pulled this blog from retirement again because I remain unsure that media coverage of the latest political farce really does justice to the scale of the breakdown. Brexit is merely a symptom of a much larger problem in the UK – the political system is broken, and quite profoundly.

This is for a number of reasons which include, but are far from limited to:

  • a “London bubble” – from the Civil Service to the broadcast media, the focus is astonishingly biased towards London, which leads to a very genuine sense in much of the rest of England of being distant from power (hence “take back control” resonated so strongly);
  • coverage as a “soap opera” – there is a tendency to cover politics rather than government, and to promote to positions of media prominence people are are entertaining in preference to those who are knowledgeable (and to cover issues in terms of their political rather than social consequences, hence even Brexit becomes all about jostling for position rather than educated debates about its impact on food on shelves, welfare budgets or health recruitment);
  • a farcical education system – which, as The Economist puts it, means positions in senior office all too often go to people from a small number of schools and universities whose position is in fact based on pure confidence and bluster rather than on actual competence and knowledge;
  • a lack of civic input and engagement – that same education system also does not teach people even the basics of politics and government, meaning people all too often leave it to others;
  • the electoral system – which, in England at least, promotes two large parties unable to respond to the range of complex interests which now exist in plain view across the country.

The result is that we need to ask far more profound questions even than “Who will lead the Conservative Party?” or “What sort of Brexit will we have?”

We are now in a position where neither large party can ever conceivably be coherent enough to form a parliamentary majority of MPs with genuine confidence in its Leader. There is literally not a single MP who could command the confidence of the House of Commons now. Even a new election would be little use. For as long as the electoral system remains as it is, each party will remain a grossly unstable coalition unable practically to govern with any coherence. Only a German-style PR system, allowing MPs to form coalitions after the election based on the priorities of the day, can restore any coherence. Yet there is scant prospect of that.

Thus the only hope is to return decision making to the people, but even this is fraught with danger given the aforementioned point that, in the UK, the people are not used to such decisions (“They didn’t do enough to inform us” was a familiar cry in 2016 – which should immediately make you wonder who “they” are who should be doing the “informing”). Returning decision making to the people requires tools other than just crude binary referendums. Cititzens’ Conventions and other forms of local deliberative democracy are surely necessary to counter the distance and gridlock of Westminster.

This is a deep and profound crisis not just of politics but of Government itself. In fact, bluntly, the UK has become ungovernable. It will take radical thinking and an ability to work across partisan lines for the greater good to overcome this.

 

Glider will work – but not always for rational reasons

Last Friday I had some work to do and I was in the eastern part of Belfast City Centre. I decided to do it in a coffee shop – in Ballyhackamore.

Why? Well, because I could via the new Glider. I would do it again too – I met three people I knew while there and that led to some useful additional points for the research work I was doing. Ballyhackamore is a hub – and it will only become more so because it is now so obviously easy to get to.

It is not, of course, that it wasn’t already easy to get to. The Glider, as one traveller put it on the BBC, “is only a bus at the end of the day”. The reason it will succeed is more emotional than rational.

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Ultimately, the basic reason may be the simple map above. Compared to the Belfast Metro (Citybus) network, it is a lot simpler. People choosing locations to go, as I was, will choose from the map. Next week I may well choose the Kennedy Centre; the following Dundonald; and so on.

Comfort matters too. The bus is newer and more spacious – for example, people can bring on prams at off-peak times without any disturbance, as they could on a train but not on a double decker.

Part of it is pure branding. I overheard one child expressing delight at the very notion of “gliding”.

This is not to discount the rational reasons for liking it, from the at-level platforms to the USB ports. But in the end it plays to emotion rather than reason. For that, it will likely succeed.

 

Donegal Ulster Scots

For the day that’s in it…

Wee Hughie

He’s gaen tae schuil, wee Hughie,
An him no fouwer.
Shuir A saa the fricht wis in him,
Whan he left the deur.

But he tuik a haund o Denny
An a haund o Dan,
Wi Joes auld coat upon him –
Och, the puir wee maun!

He cut the quaerest feigur,
Mair stout nor thin;
An trottan richten steadie
Wi his taes turnt in.

A watcht him tae the corner
O the big turf stak,
An themair his feet went forrit,
Still his heid turnt bak.

He wis leukan, wad A caa him –
Och ma hairt wis wae –
Shuir it’s losst A am athout him,
But he buid tae gae.

A follaed tae the turnin
Whan thay past it aa,
Goad help him, he wis cryan,
An, mebbes, sae wis A.

Original: Elizabeth McShane

#WeDeserveBetter – or do we?

I have brought this blog out of political retirement to say just one thing. Delivering good government is complex.

This should not be a controversial statement. To manage a health service while adapting to new treatments, new equipment and new medical conditions while dealing with an ageing population presenting with ever more complex care needs (my father alone has prostrate cancer, dementia and diabetes) is difficult. To manage an education system which meets the needs of the economy, the expectations of parents and the interest of children all while ensuring those who emerge from it are genuinely educated and able to adapt in a fast-changing world is difficult. Even to put in place a new guided bus system in one city which will attract people out of their cars, improve traffic flow and help the environment while meeting the needs and expectations of people through both the delivery and the transition is a project fraught with immense difficulty.

Delivering these things, and managing the people and systems required to do so, is a hugely complicated and difficult task requiring a significant base of skills and experience.

To repeat, this should not be controversial. And yet it is incredible – incredible – how many people do not take account of it and go about their daily lives as if these things are easy and straightforward. They are not.

This brings us to a problem afflicting the Western World, particularly the Anglosphere – populism. Populists do not come forward with solutions. They come forward with problems and then, given the complexity actually involved with resolving those problems, they pick instead on something simplistic (or, worse, on a particular minority group) to blame. “These things are actually simple”, they say, “except the elite/the establishment/the foreigners/the gays/the weak moaning group-of-your-choice are telling you otherwise!”

Pointing at things which are wrong, they simply point out they are wrong and that they must be put right – but never bother to explain how. So it is in Northern Ireland. One side points out the damage caused by terrorists and the other side points out the damage caused by the denial of rights. But neither gives you a coherent plan to fixing it or even moving on from it. People all over the Western World would no doubt recognise that general problem in their own political system, or at least one very nearby.

In Northern Ireland, what is remarkable is how little public reaction there has been. There are no industrial actions, no protest marches, not even really public discussions of any kind.

Stepping into the void was, supposedly, the #WeDeserveBetter campaign. To its supporters, this looks like an obvious common sense campaign saying that politicians should get back to work.

Yet here is the thing: to DUP supporters it is common sense that it is Sinn Fein which is solely responsible for blocking restoration through its pre-conditions; to Sinn Fein supporters it is common sense that it is the DUP refusing to ensure equal rights as part of government. No one doesn’t want to do the job – it is just the other side is blocking them from doing so. What has #WeDeserveBetter to say about those viewpoints?

Sadly it became apparent almost instantly that #WeDeserveBetter is just as populist as the very populists who are holding us all up.

Firstly, they pointed out how much MLAs have been paid since the Executive fell. Those are, of course, the MLAs we elected, carrying out the platforms under which we elected them. As it happens, comfortably more than half elected under the broadly proportional system we operate were from the two largest parties required to form an Executive. So what does #WeDeserveBetter propose to do about this fact? Ignore popular mandates? Sack the politicians the people elected? Abolish democracy?

Secondly, they then decided to host a rally calling for some common sense changes in line with the rest of the UK and Ireland – primarily reforms to marriage and abortion legislation. This is, in fact, somewhat more complex than it sounds. Presumably, marriage legislation should allow same-sex couples the same rights to civic marriage as any others, but should protect churches from any obligation in this regard (which may require slightly different drafting from the rest of the UK given Northern Ireland’s distinct equality laws, both in terms of the legislation applicable and the legal judgments applied here to it)? On abortion, are we proposing to follow a 50-year-old law in Great Britain which quite specifically does not give the woman the right to choose (taking the risk that courts in Northern Ireland will set the same precedent as they did in Great Britain five decades ago) or something more like the Irish proposal (itself in fact seemingly based on German law, which is much more restrictive than Great Britain’s in terms of timing but establishes more clearly the woman’s right)? What precisely, here, is the #WeDeserveBetter campaign proposing?

Of course, it then turned out that even having the same rights for LGBT and women as in the rest of the UK and Ireland was “divisive”, according to some who believe #WeDeserveBetter. (It should be quite obvious, by the way, that those who have suffered from the denial of basic civil and medical rights definitely “deserve better”.)

So when people came to demand “better”, the fact is they could not even agree on basic principles of social policy. When you then get to the very real and difficult complications of transforming an entire health and social care service; reforming the schools estate and skills; or even implementing a guided bus system; and doing all of this within a budget already well above what we actually raise in revenue, what have they to say? How on earth would they be expected to agree on those highly complex matters, if even basic social policy and rights are too difficult?

Therein lies the difficulty!

At the last election, almost two-thirds of the population voted for the two “problem parties” (defined as those required to form an Executive but unable to agree how to do so) despite knowing that they were the problem parties – indeed, almost 30% voted for a party on the very specific proposition that it would not take its seats in the legislature. Neither party is particularly keen on forming a government because, of course, government is actually complex and difficult. Both remain more popular by not forming a government.

Yet those who would oppose them then fall into the same trap. Just like the DUP and Sinn Fein, they present apparently common sense propositions (“MLAs are paid too much”; “politicians are useless”, “#WeDeserveBetter”), only to find that as soon as a single one of those propositions is tested (“Well obviously we should have a more progressive social policy…”) the whole thing falls apart. Just as with the DUP and Sinn Fein, it turns out to be much easier to oppose the government with some basic slogans no one could be seen to disagree with, than actually form a government to deal with the very real complexities and difficulties of delivering public services and social policy (never mind economic strategies – no one even pretends to bother with those) on behalf of a diverse population.

Thus, even the very basic proposition is ultimately populist, however well meaning it is. We all like to think we “deserve better” – the people opposing that proposition will be as numerous as those opposing the proposition that “terrorists are bad” or that “equal rights are good”! The problem comes when we start defining those terms…

And so it is that when I campaign at elections what I see is a vast majority voting for the very two parties who are quite obviously the problem; when I hit the doors between elections I find very few people prepared to give up their time and join me; and when I propose think tanks to look at very real issues of health, education and jobs no one shows any real interest. It is much easier to tweet angrily about radio programmes playing to our base instinct of “identity politics” where we can just blame an “out group” of our choosing.

I understand. We are all busy. But based on our voting record, our campaigning time and our ability even to think through the complexities and difficulties faced by those trying to deliver a functioning health service, education system and transport infrastructure on a budget limited by what we are ourselves prepared to pay in rates and taxes, I have to wonder – if “we” deserve better, who precisely are “we” and on what basis do we “deserve” it?

 

Today, we are all hockey fans

Well, well, well.

The qualification of both Irish teams for their respective Hockey World Cups this year (the women’s in England just past, and the men’s in India towards the end of the year) was seen as a significant step for the sport here, as it had never happened before. The progression of the women’s team all the way to the Final really was a rub-your-eyes fairytale.

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What is striking about the above image, courtesy FIH, is how happy the players are to be there. Indeed, running out for the final, far from nerves there were smiles. This was a team which was proud simply to be at the tournament – but also stunningly determined to stay there!

First, a word on the scale of the achievement. Some correspondents thought any comparison with soccer is silly, because the vast majority of countries in the world play soccer whereas very few prioritise hockey. Yet that was the point. Ireland is one of those which doesn’t prioritise hockey, and yet still reached the Final having not even qualified for three previous tournaments.

Indeed, remarkably, only three countries had played in the Final since the tournament became established as a regular four-year event from 1990 – each of the last seven finals had involved two of the Netherlands, Australia or Argentina. It so happened that all three of those plus hosts (and effectively Olympic champions) England ended up on the same side of the draw; and Ireland seized the chance (a chance it had earned by winning England’s group) to come through the other half brilliantly.

Second, there is then the issue that the team’s progress was followed by inevitable calls for better funding. As someone whose whole family in involved in the game – playing and (in my case because I have no actual talent) umpiring – I have no objection to that idea. However, what we saw over the past fortnight was bigger and better than a mere appeal for funding. Indeed, it was the ultimate proof that the best things in life do not involve money.

Hockey, in Ireland (or certainly Ulster) at least, does not do money. Not only are players expected to pay levies (even, until recently, to play for Ireland), but administrators, PR people, coaches and umpires all operate for free – most do not even receive expenses (even at lower levels a football referee, for example, can expect £30 plus travel). The whole culture and basis of the game, therefore, is different from those of sports which are designed from the outset to be professional.

Perhaps because of this, hockey receives very little exposure or coverage. Yet there is a further issue here we may need to contemplate – unusually by global standards, in Ireland hockey is a predominantly female sport (in terms of playing participation by about 2:1). In fact, in Northern Ireland alone, during the season over 2000 women play senior club hockey every weekend, plus many hundreds more in junior clubs and schools. It would be interesting to know if many other sports can match that figure.

The gender issue is a tricky one but it needs to be raised because gender balance is to be achieved not only by encouraging female participation in sports where participation is mainly male, but also surely by encouraging coverage and exposure of sports which are already predominantly female. What happened over the past few days offers a glorious opportunity to address that deficit.

Therefore, beyond any funding issue, there is the broader point that hockey deserves – in terms of everything from the level of volunteer participation to the success of elite level players in the world stage – broader exposure and coverage.

So the next time we see the standard “sports marketing” picture with the supposedly big three sports (soccer, GAA and rugby), let us ask ourselves: what about hockey? And then think of players with smiles on their faces…

Ministers needed or universal free healthcare will be thing of the past

Opinion piece by Paula Bradshaw MLA (Alliance Party, Belfast South):

The news that the Department of Health would make arrangements to implement the recommended pay award for workers in the Health Sector was welcome, but the wholly unnecessary delay in putting in place a budget for it was just the tip of the iceberg. Health pay, budgets and transformation cannot be managed without Ministers in place urgently – and any party which really cared about our collective health and well-being would recognise this. 

The notion that we have a universal healthcare service free at point of access is already a delusion. Increasingly, people with means are understandably opting out of a system with vast waiting lists and collapsing primary care services, and choosing instead to pay to go private. This means we already, in practice, have a two-tier service – both for staff and patients. The founding principles of the NHS no longer have any meaningful application when that is the case. What needs to be done?

Firstly, any organisation is only as good as the workers within it, and if workers are not paid properly and do not have reasonable conditions, they will understandably begin to opt out. We need to reassess pay levels for full-time staff upwards in the light of the rising cost of living, and we also need to implement caps to stop agencies profiteering on the back of staffing shortfalls. This, of course, requires legislation – including a Minister and an Assembly. 

Secondly, we need to bring far more money into the Health Service while it is being reformed to enable “dual running” – i.e. the operation of the Service as currently alongside the reformed Service. This means a fundamental review of where we are allocating devolved funds – not least those wasted on segregated services or mismanaged programmes – as well as consideration of sources of other income. This too, realistically, requires Ministers and an Assembly. 

Thirdly, we need to implement the Bengoa proposals. This is an immense reform programme but it has the support of those working within the Service who recognise that it is the only way to restore a universal service free at point of access with expert, quality care available to the entire population on an equal basis. This will see more emphasis on the right pathway immediately upon entering the system, a greater focus on prevention and ongoing care in the home, and the development of world-class specialist provision. However, the programme requires significant legislative change – which again requires a Minister and an Assembly.

It is time for those who care about our healthcare to stand up and be counted. There is no excuse for not putting back into operation the devolved institutions of government to take responsibility for adequate pay, an enhanced budget and a vital reform programme.  

Merry Christmas

Keeping_Your_Home_Safe_This_Christmas

Be good. Stay safe. Have fun.

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