SDLP irresponsibility takes Stormont to brink

“Section 87 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 recognises the long-established principle of parity between Great Britain and Northern Ireland on social security. I acknowledge that the parity principle is, to some extent, frustrating to an Assembly that is keen to pass its own laws and form its own policies. However, the Northern Ireland social security system is not self-financing. The cost of paying benefits in Northern Ireland is subsidised heavily by Great Britain.

“For example, in 2005-06, to meet its benefit obligations, the Northern Ireland National Insurance fund needed a transfer of £185 million from the Great Britain National Insurance fund. In the same period, expenditure on non-contributory benefits, which are demand led and financed from taxation revenue, was more than £2·26 billion. The funding depends on parity. Therefore, when Members ask what reason we have for maintaining parity, the answer is that there is approximately £2·4 billion worth of reasons.”

So said SDLP Social Development Minister (with responsibility for welfare) Margaret Ritchie in 2007.

However, as Sinn Féin inched towards doing the responsible thing, precisely as the SDLP had advocated while in the relevant office, the SDLP flipped its position. It did so purely in a ham-fisted attempt at electoral distinctiveness.

The widespread view now is that Sinn Féin pulled this stunt in its own ham-fisted attempt at deflecting attention from allegations in last night’s BBC Spotlight programme.

This means by signing the Petition of Concern the SDLP has now become part of a conspiracy to divert attention from victims by pursuing a policy they themselves have demonstrated to be impossible, thus endangering the institutions.

And why do so few ask them about this? What precisely does the SDLP want to slash from public spending to cover the gap they themselves defined? Let’s hear where the billions are to be taken from. Hospitals? Schools? Public safety? (Selling forests doesn’t quite cover it, to be quite clear about that.)

As one correspondent over on Slugger put it:

“This is what happens when parties like the SDLP pursue a dishonest policy, feeling safe in the knowledge that they will never be called upon to act to support it. They thought, like many of us, that they could safely criticize Sinn Féin for upholding parity knowing that there was no alternative. They did not anticipate that SF would bring down Stormont in order to protect themselves from abuse allegations. Their bluff has been called – and it’s not going to go well for them.”

Populism is causing a crisis in western democracy and, in Northern Ireland, the once arch defenders of the Agreement, the SDLP’s populism has enabled that crisis to take place.

The SDLP had to yield on the National Crime Agency. It has better find a way to yield on welfare too. After all, on their own terms, there are now “£3.1 billion worth of reasons” to do so…

Sinn Féin flip perfectly timed for election

Sinn Féin’s flip-flop on welfare reform will seriously harm the poorest people in Northern Ireland. Money will now have to be taken from Health, Education and Justice to pay for the allocations which will need to be returned to the UK Treasury (so-called “fines”) in increasing amounts as the penalty for breaching “parity”.

People awaiting vital operations or diagnosis will find there is not enough staff or equipment to carry them out; crucial employment schemes setting young people on the way to work and well-being will be abandoned; as lights go unfixed and patrols go unreplaced, people (particularly the elderly) will feel unable to go out safely. That is the consequence of not implementing welfare reform.

This Welfare Reform, by the way, would give more money to the “seriously disabled” (they receive more under PIP than under DLA). This Welfare Reform would ensure that someone who cannot take a job currently because they would lose benefits would no longer lose them, and thus could start the journey away from dependency and into a career. It would also greatly simplify the system so that people entitled to benefits were much less likely to miss out on them. As for “tackling child poverty”, that is a lot easier when you do not pay hundreds of millions every year back to the Treasury in order to run a welfare system which traps people in poverty rather than helps them out of it (not least because it inadequately supports severely disabled people, hinders people who want to get into work, and takes money from vital public services to do so).

No, if you really wanted to help the “vulnerable”, taking hundreds of millions out of essential public services and programmes they rely on to pay for a complex and dysfunctional welfare system is the very last thing you would do.

Yet it is what Sinn Féin has just done, of course. Because it is not vulnerable people they care about, it is vulnerable seats.

Those colours again…

A correspondent (a very important correspondent – my wife’s election agent!) kindly drew my attention to an article which covers some of the aspects of the colour issue I raised last week.

The whole programme is worth watching and appears to be available here.

The essential point is that colour names are merely names we apply to perceptions; and that our linguistic naming of colours actually determines what colours we see. In English, for example, we distinguish pink-purple-red-orange but have only one “green” despite a similar range:

Colour Spectrum

Put another way, I remember arriving in South Africa as a 10-year-old and my first thought as we landed at Johannesburg, genuinely, was “The grass is yellow!”

This was a first indication that colours are literally different in Southern Africa, and it is more important to be able to distinguish between yellows and greens that, say, between greys and blues. Southern African languages would name their spectrum accordingly – with different words for various shades of green but quite possibly nothing at all for blue and relatively little for red – and this in turn means speakers of those languages literally distinguish those colours more easily in sight, but effectively only see one red and do not see blue at all (as evidenced in the linked article above).

Indo-European languages (such as English, Irish, French, Greek and Hindi) all derive from a single language, probably spoken in Ukraine around 5,000 years ago. To this day, there are some common markers derived from it, such as -r for family relationships (father/mother/brother; athair/mathair/braithair; pere/mere/frere and so on). Another point of interest, as noted in the article, it is impossible to reconstruct reliably a word for “blue”. This may give us some clues as to climate, location, geography and so on – in the same way we can reconstruct words for some types of tree and foliage, but not others.

Ultimately, what linguistics is doing here is given us a clear source of evidence about where we come from and how we perceived and perceive the world.

Give up languages in primary schools, you say? Crazy!

Sinn Féin “indigenous population” comments give game away

In the run up to the Scottish Referendum, Irish singer and philanthropist attended a rally calling for the maintenance of the Union. For this “offence”, at least two Sinn Féin elected representatives put forward the view that he was evidence he was “no longer Irish”. Think about that – the unmistakeable logic is that, to be “Irish”, you are not even allowed to be favourable to the UK.

There was a lot of wriggling subsequently, but the underlying notion that Sinn Féin believes you can be any kind of Irish as long as it is pro-terror and anti-British remains pervasive. Play parks should, of course, be named after people who sought to murder workers just because they were Protestant, after all – there is no one else in Newry worthier of such an honour, apparently.

Then came the straightforward confirmation. Pro-terror people of Catholic background are, according to a man once tipped as Sinn Féin’s next President until he turned out to be a shambolic Minister, the “indigenous population”. Pushed to explain this he only made things worse, referring to the “native Irish”.

There we are. For all the nice talk, invites to Loyalist parade organisers, twittering Lord Mayors and shaking hands with the Queen, there remains at the heart of so-called “republicanism” a raging ethnic nationalism that civilised people have long rejected. Protestant killers can be rewarded, pro-British people of any kind lambasted, even other Nationalists dismissed if they reject the glory of the IRA’s campaign of terror. Such people are, of course, “not really Irish”. So much for an “Ireland of Equals”!

It all goes back the old notion that “Republicans” are all very willing to tolerate other people as long as it is entirely on their own terms. Yet this strategy has merely resulted in their murdering 2000 people in order to end up administering British rule in Ireland.

Here’s a thought – maybe they should try equality for all, not just those who agree with them?!

Attwood shows SDLP spiralling out of control

Northern Ireland’s answer to Natalie Bennett last week was Alex Attwood.

Early last week he stated clearly and without doubt that it was time to stop investment in south and east Belfast and shift it all to north and west.

Within hours he was contrite, going on the media to correct himself.

Firstly, but less relevantly, this showed what a mess the SDLP has become. One of its own leaders decided to go out on a limb without even contemplating the consequences for his colleagues. Demanding no more investment in one of your Westminster seats, when you only hold three, is the height of selfishness if nothing else.

Secondly, and more worryingly, it is total garbage. If Mr Attwood thinks he can direct innovative global firms with turnovers many times that of the entire Northern Ireland devolved budget specifically to invest in north and west Belfast, he has simply lost the run of himself. Besides, Belfast is in total just 100 square kilometres – it’s not exactly unknown for people to make the mammoth twenty-minute commute from one part of it to another and there are these wonderful things called buses and trains to help where necessary!

One thing which damages investment anywhere, in fact, is such ludicrous public representatives promoting such a ludicrous silo mentality. Until we forget these daft silos and promote Greater Belfast and all its people as a whole, we will never enable it to reach its full economic potential and create the jobs and wealth we need.

Bennett interview criticism misses point

All cats have four legs. My dog has four legs. Therefore my dog is a cat.

That is the spurious logic used by people who propose to vote for inexperienced populists (whether left or right) instead of the established parties at the forthcoming UK General Election. Surely it couldn’t get any worse? Last week came the ultimate warning that yes, actually it could get a lot worse.

You cannot fail to have some sympathy for Natalie Bennett, who made headlines for all the wrong reasons after a series of frankly bizarre media interviews culminating in her effective substitution at her party’s own launch.

However, the criticism focused on her “performance” and, thus, missed the point. Everyone has an off-day, as she fairly pointed out herself. The issue was not her “performance”; the issue was quite simply that she was ignorant on a vast range of issues.

It was largely missed, but she started the day by suggesting that the UK should make concessions to Vladimir Putin. Goodness knows the “established parties” have made some appalling foreign policy errors in recent years, but that goes beyond even any of those. Putin is a man who takes chunks of neighbouring countries’ territory, bans homosexuality outright, has national computing systems destroyed within the EU, has planes shot from the sky, and has opponents murdered not just outside his own office (as he did this weekend) but even on the streets of London – the notion that he can in any remote way be reasoned with is straightforward nonsense. The worst thing was that she suggested this in the name of “human rights”. To confuse seeking to do things in a peaceful and civilised manner on one hand, and rolling over to tyrants as they destroy people on the other, is a dangerous delusion which would only enable the outright destruction of human rights, not the promotion of them.

Then, she moved on to housing. Apparently, it turned out, she believed houses could be built for £60,000, with the added clear implication that all that was needed to build up communities was to build houses. In fact, houses take considerably more than £60,000 to build anywhere in the UK (currently the Northern Ireland Housing Executive is losing money having to sell some at more than that in the inner city), and in any case come with additional land fees, HR costs and add-ons for the likes of communal gardens and shopping zones. This is basic knowledge, and anyone seeking serious influence should at the very least know how to find it out.

Beyond basic lack of knowledge there are two further linked problems here – even when the Greens have no idea how to implement their policies; and this is partly because of a growing and nasty tribalism in British politics.

The challenge in politics is not just to have ideas, but to have at least some idea how to carry them out. This means that even when the Greens have good ideas, they are now back-pedalling by suggesting they cannot be implemented soon. Yet ideas such as a Basic Income could be implemented immediately, if only the Greens were willing to take advice and step outside the confines of the populist “anti-austerity left” to build coalitions to get things done.


We actually live in a civilised multicultural country, with a growing economy, comparatively low unemployment, falling crime, a vibrant arts scene, a globally respected broadcasting system, the world’s most visited capital city, a highly innovative service sector, top-class universities, a world-renowned health service and a reputation for world-leading research in key areas such as genetics. The implicit idea that all our leaders are fools who know nothing is demonstrably not so – and people know it!

It is bizarre how many people seem to think politics is about blaming everyone else for not implementing the policies you want, rather than seeking influence to implement them – a view particularly prevalent among twentysomethings. The sooner the Greens realise my dog is not a cat, the better.

English have to grasp team sports are not about individuals

It is incredible. At the weekend, England, a relatively wealthy country of 53 million people, was comfortably beaten at cricket by Sri Lanka (a much poorer country of just 20 million) and at rugby by Ireland (a comparably wealthy one of just over 6 million). This came after further humblings at the Cricket World Cup by New Zealand (4 million) and Australia (23 million), all following in from elimination from football’s World Cup at the hands of Uruguay (3 million) and Costa Rica (6 million). Even the hockey team has mustered only one major success since 1988. Seriously?!

I cannot help but think the media’s reaction was informative. Bring back “KP” (Kevin Pietersen) into Eoin Morgan’s side and all will be well, apparently. Did anyone writing that stop to consider, just consider, that the very fact they were even debating whether or not a South African should play for an Irishman’s team is the basic problem?!

The point is twofold. First, England has a peculiar inability – at any team sport – to bring through talent to elite level. Second, the English seem to believe you succeed at team sports merely by changing around individuals.

The problem is that the culture of believing that teams are effectively just groups of individuals, and that scant thought should be given as to how those individuals best work together, is becoming ever more pervasive. The English media are also quick to pin team failures on one individual, but slow to recognise when that was obviously nonsense – how is the successful campaign to remove Alistair Cook as England’s one-day captain working out?

It is hard to get away from the fact this all derives from our general culture of thinking that there are easy solutions to complex things – we believe we can solve the entire financial crisis just by changing a few politicians in much the same way we believe the English cricket team would be world beaters with one change of personnel. The idea that this is a much broader problem, consisting not just of spending or personnel but also of efficiency and team-building, seems beyond our grasp.

Yet the New Zealanders, Australians and Sri Lankans (even, dare I say, the Irish) seem instantly aware that sporting success – even social success – come from working as an efficient and cohesive unit, not just tampering with the edges of the line-up on a near trial and error basis.

Those who drive public debate in England – managers, administrators, commentators and so on – now have a responsibility to recognise there is something fundamentally wrong when a country of such vast population and resources fails so comprehensively at team sports time after time. Public debate has to shift away from individual performances here and there, and on to the business of building teams as efficient units which operate cohesively. Otherwise, this same story will be repeated for generations.

That dress – and linguistics…

I am amazed that I haven’t written about the subject of language and colour before, because it forms the start of every single training course I do, regardless of the topic.

So, what colour is this dress?
The dress...

Well, what colour is this car?
A car...

Here’s the interesting thing – the language we speak will, to a large degree, determine what colour we see things as.

For example, we know a banana is yellow. Even if a banana is placed under a blue light this making it blue, we will still see it as yellow – because we know a banana is yellow. Our brains actually correct our vision to record the colour as the one we know it to be, even as another part of our brain is seeing it as blue. If memory serves, there was a BBC Horizon programme about this some years ago.

Speaking of fruit, the classical Romans did not initially have oranges. Not only did this mean the word for the fruit was missing from Latin, but so was the word for the colour. The colour word is taken from the fruit. Ancient Romans, at least before familiarisation with the exotic fruit, would literally have seen anything orange as either dark yellow or light red. Traditional Irish has no colour orange at all, likewise generally using “buí” (more usually translated as yellow, thus also the colour of a banana…)

Likewise, in Traditional Irish, the above car is unquestionably “glas”. It is in fact right in the middle of the spectrum; no Traditional Irish speaker would be in any doubt about it. “Glas” covers anything from the colour of a grey horse to the colour of a murky sea (blue) – but not all blues, most blues are in fact “gorm”.

A lot of this is also determined by the environment. The Romans also had no word for “brown” (French had to borrow “brun” from Germanic); in Latin, brown things are generally described as red. To emphasise: this literally meant they saw them as red, not brown, as their brains reconnected the colour with the language. Germanic languages, spoken 2000 years ago predominantly by people living in forests, did have “brown” no doubt because of that arboreal environment.

In English, we see a lot of things as “green” (anything from a dark bush to perhaps even a tennis ball) where, in many languages, these different shades (say a dark bush, grass, lime and a tennis ball) would be clearly distinct (i.e. a different word altogether, the same way we distinguish purple from crimson from pink from red from orange). On the other hand, some languages do not meaningfully distinguish blue from green at all – seeing the sky and foliage as marginally different shades of the same colour.

Only a distinction between white/light and dark/black is universal in all languages. Interestingly, if any languages have only those plus a third colour, the third colour is always red. If there is a fourth colour, it is generally centred roughly on the colour of a tennis ball (yellow or green); if there is a fifth, the other of “yellow” or “green” comes next. Only upon the introduction of a sixth does blue appear – in other words, every single language which distinguishes between five colours excludes blue; every single one which adds a sixth includes blue. These terms are somewhat relative, but they are fundamental to how we literally see the world.

Those are the linguistics. The car, officially, was platinum green. You may make your own mind up about the dress!

Sinn Féin still financially clueless

I was pleased to hear Sinn Féin was putting forward a motion on revenue raising. Sadly, in the event, it was thoroughly underwhelming.

It swiftly became evident that Sinn Féin doesn’t even understand the concept of “revenue raising”. A loan from the European Investment Bank is a good idea, but it’s already being attempted and is still a loan, it’s not “revenue raising”. The Living Wage is an economic pay issue but not in any way “revenue raising”. So we were left with removal of the Rates Cap – the same Rates Cap which is so regressive, Sinn Féin voted for it when it was introduced…

The DUP, which claims to be against revenue raising, is actually more concretely for it than the “Socialist” Sinn Féin. It now not only supports Prescription Charges, but also a slight rise in Tuition Fees.

It is very difficult to run an administration in which parties are so financially misleading or clueless. Others may determine which…

Pay MPs more to stop second jobs?

I was on BBC Radio Ulster yesterday on the subject of MPs’ pay.

I found the whole debate fascinating and, as I said, I have come to no clear conclusion on it. However, the case I made was as follows, and I wonder what people think of it.

Firstly, MPs do have an incredibly important job – they make the laws of the land and oversee other policy (including foreign). For this, they are paid considerably less than, for example, many people who interpret the law or even enforce the law at a high level.

Secondly, the job involves immense stress. They represent 100,000 people, generally live away from home much of the week, and often work crazy hours in a pressurised environment. They have to balance interests of constituency, party and country in situations of high complexity. Small wonder that, only half way through the current parliamentary term, one sixth of the new intake of MPs had separated or divorced from their partner at time of election. That is a monumental price.

Thirdly, the job involves huge public scrutiny. MPs are held to higher standards than most people even in their daily or private lives. This is also highly challenging.

So, for a high level of professional skill, mad hours and huge stress, what do we pay them?

They earn two and a half times the average, but that is about the same as a public sector agency CEO in Northern Ireland; marginally less than the average school principal or police superintendent across the UK; and significantly less than the average NHS manager or GP. So where do we put them on the scale?

I think politics has to be a vocation, so I just about rule out GP-level salaries (even though, we may note, 800 people in the Northern Ireland Health Service alone earn over £100k, at least 50% more than MPs). However, maybe around a Superintendent of Principal, at approaching £80k?

The quid pro quo, as I suggested, was zero tolerance for other income of any direct kind at all – resignation of paid directorships, no dividends, probably no property either. There would also be zero tolerance on dodgy expenses claims. My suspicion is the public would live with a pay rise in those circumstances, even a fairly significant one.

I don’t accept, by the way, the line that there are loads of “good people” turned off politics by the “low salary”. In the case of Malcolm Rifkind (you’ll have to excuse me omitting his “title” in the current circumstances), you are dealing not with someone who needs more money, but with a pathetic man who has gotten well above himself. So I do not believe higher pay would end such issues entirely, but it would make them a lot clearer cut. I wonder if that’s a compromise we could live with?


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