NI needs to stop prioritising low-value business sectors

There is currently a vociferous and well organised lobby to reduce VAT for the hospitality sector in Northern Ireland. There has even been an Assembly motion, which in fairness was reasonably designed to suggest the idea should be looked at. Yet the whole prioritisation of the hospitality sector demonstrates all that is wrong with Northern Ireland’s economy policy prioritisation – for it is actually low value, and hence low paid.

Where are the most successful economies and most prosperous societies in the European Union? Perhaps Scandinavia, Benelux and parts of Germany? Tell me, how much do they prioritise their hospitality sector?

Not a lot, actually. Denmark, which has typically had the highest GDP/capita in the EU (excluding tiny Luxembourg) since it joined in 1973, does not attempt to prioritise it at all. Its VAT rate, already a hefty 25%, applies equally across the entire hospitality sector. Others make some effort, but it is relatively insignificant and, where any reductions apply, they are often made up for by additional municipal taxes (or are designed not to help the hospitality sector itself but to help encourage other business). None of those countries – Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Belgium, Netherlands or Germany – is renowned for its tourist or dining industry (with the arguable temporary exception of Denmark in the latter case, and even then only at the very high end of fine dining), nor particularly for great leisure opportunities. In other words, a strong hospitality sector does not a functioning economy make – indeed, it is not even necessary.

This is because hospitality is low value. There is very little real money to be made out of it. It relies often on one-off visitors paying a slight premium for something in which there are few margins to start with. As a consequence, it is extremely low paid. Even in Belfast, it is noteworthy that most waiters and receptionists in hotels and restaurants are foreign, prepared to accept lower wages than the locals. There is of course no harm in promoting Northern Ireland as a golf mecca, or a conflict resolution conference host, or the home of film tourism – but we need not rely on this to deliver high-paid employment and exciting careers in business.

Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany are trading nations; they export real goods and real services of real value. That is how they make their money – not hospitality. The hospitality sector likes to promote itself as “bringing in” millions to the economy, but actually most of this is merely circulating; it is only when you begin exporting high-value products and services – like cars, or wind turbines, or shipping services, or medicines, or engineering equipment and know-how – that you bring in real money and thus create well paid employment. With that trade will, of course, arise hospitality opportunities – but we need to be clear it is that way around. The odd tourist will not create the type of employment skilled graduates want; but the odd trader in high-end knowledge and equipment will.

Focusing on hospitality, therefore, is like focusing on call centres. Those types of starter jobs have their place, of course, and they are not to be knocked – but after the starter, there has to be a main course…

Derry roads priorities

Why should the A6 (to Belfast) be prioritised ahead of the A5 (to Dublin)?

Frankly, we all know this is an essentially sectarian question. Nationalists quite fancy the A5 because it links to the “national capital” after all. They will, therefore, make the evidence suit that case.

It doesn’t, though. Well, not really.

Firstly, we need to note this isn’t an “either/or”. In fact, upgrading each road occurs in sections. You could upgrade a section of one, and then a section of the other. In fact, that is what you should do.

Then, we need to look at the individual sections. I would be inclined to prioritise them as follows (using sections which Transport NI seems now to base its plans on):

– first, A6 M22-Castledawson (often referred to as “Moneynick”, but actually the contract includes the section over the county boundary to the west of the Toome Bypass too);

– second, A6 Dungiven Bypass (to the south);

– third, A5 Ballygawley-Omagh;

– fourth, A6 Derry-Dungiven;

– fifth, A5 Derry-Strabane.

That is as far as I would plan for now. Here is why.

Firstly, the worst stretch on the entire A5/A6 is the “Moneynick” section. This is because, by the late ’60s, the Stormont administration had given up on a more northern route to Derry but not on extending the M22 to Castledawson; it thus invested in improving the A6 beyond Castledawson but assumed it would be replaced before it. With the partial exception of the Toome Bypass, however, the section is the only stretch of main A6 still as it was in the ’50s (other than in Dungiven, see below). Hence it is heavily congested at some times and plain dangerous the rest of the time. So it is far and away top priority for that alone. Throw in usage and economic benefit (as the stretch serves Mid Ulster as well as the North West), and this just becomes even clearer.

The battle for second priority is tighter for me, but the A6 Dungiven Bypass just edges it ahead of A5 Ballygawley-Omagh. This is for much the same reason as Moneynick – assuming a Dungiven Bypass was coming, even in the ’60s, the road was left alone temporarily (“temporarily” came to mean half a century). Add to that the significant journey time saving (not only is the route slowed by passing through Dungiven but also by the fact it is significantly diverted to do so) and pollution levels (raised in fact by Sinn Féin), and there is an urgent economic and health case.

Ballygawley-Omagh is the priority section of A5 for me partly because it serves a double purpose (connecting the North West to the south but also the West of Ulster to Belfast), and partly because it is dangerous. As with the new A4 expressway to which it connects, it would clearly save lives.

I would put the Derry-Dungiven A6 section next not least because it diverts traffic away from the east and south of the city in preparation for increased traffic on the subsequent A5. The A5 expressway stops south of Derry, near Newbuildings, and all the traffic on it is then assigned to an urban single carriageway – an obvious bottleneck as far as the Craigavon Bridge. Any traffic which can be diverted away from this area therefore should be – and the A6 plans help (though do not entirely solve) the problem by moving traffic exiting Derry eastbound to a bypass north of Drumahoe (meeting the existing Derry-Coleraine road north of the Foyle Bridge, taking the Craigavon Bridge out of the equation for traffic on this route to and from the Cityside and North Donegal).

To be very clear, I’d like to see all these projects completed and many beyond them. However, not least given the current financial circumstances (and our determination not to have toll roads), there is a need to prioritise which sections will be done first. If anyone has any other thoughts, I’m listening!

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.

Environment lobby needs to stop speaking Double Dutch

Of all the ludicrous decisions I have seen taken by governments and courts, one taken in the Netherlands last week comes very near the top of the list. After a campaign by environmentalists, a court ordered the Dutch Government to reduced emissions by 25% from 1990 levels – by 2020. This is crazy for three reasons.

Firstly, it cannot and will not be done. No doubt the Government will pay itself a hefty fine.

Secondly, it assumes, ludicrously, that all the emissions are under the control of the government. In fact, very few are. From corporations to individuals, responsibility for emissions is shared. The government cannot be held responsible in a remotely liberal society (and we are speaking here of a very liberal one of course) for all of its citizens and corporations’ actions. Punishing them for living their daily lives and running their daily business (necessary to achieve the target) but be crazy, would constitute an outrageous imposition, and would destroy the economy and living standards. Human rights, you say?

Thirdly, actions by the Dutch Government and even by the Dutch people collectively, taken alone, will make almost no difference to climate change. Here is something that will: globally, 50 new runways are being built in the next few decades, a third in China alone. Beijing’s new airport will be the size of Bermuda; Mexico City’s will be the largest in the Americas; Istanbul’s will be twice the size even of an expanded Heathrow. Even if tomorrow Europeans and North Americans stopped flying at all, the amount of global air traffic would double from today’s within the next 25 years. Not only will this, all other things being even, toss double (treble, actually, because of course we will continue to fly) the emissions into the air, most new air travel will be in developing countries to enable economic growth which will itself require more and more energy and more and more emissions.

Climate change, like social justice and many other things, is bizarrely causing us to look ever more inwards for local solutions (and, at best, appeals to Western-based morality) as if the growing middle classes in the Far East, South Asia and elsewhere are somehow not relevant actors. In fact what is required, again as with social justice, is a global solution to the global problem. But of course, again as with social justice, that will require restrictive and even punitive action in the West that no electorate there will actually tolerate…

Addendum (thanks to one regular correspondent):

Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Prize for his work on the psychology of human decision-making, says: ‘This is not what you might want to hear,’ he says, but ‘no amount of psychological awareness will overcome people’s reluctance to lower their standard of living.’

Stormont Budget: the way out

Cathy Gormley-Heenan and Newton Emerson are swiftly evolving into a BBC commentator dream team, because they both add genuine interest to the discourse and they actually disagree with each other! One thing they did agree on Thursday was that it is in all parties’ interests to help Sinn Fein out of the hole into which it has dug itself.

My own preference was outlined here a month ago – I believe strongly that devolving economic control would work politically and would be the best option in the longer term. It won’t happen, however.

Short of that, there is a simple route, hinted at in fact by Mike Nesbitt of all people on the same programme, which would have the effect of returning half a billion to the Assembly Budget over the average Assembly term – a “win” Sinn Fein could claim if it wished.

Simply, money that is not spent by the Northern Ireland departments should remain in Northern Ireland.

Currently, with some specific exceptions, money which is not spend from each Northern Ireland Department’s budget is returned to the UK Treasury. Usually, this is a very small amount, because as the end of the financial year approaches (in February and March), Departments off-load the extra – hence we see pavements dug up, short term employment training schemes run, and minor roadworks cunningly brought forward a few months. However, some of the money cannot be off-loaded so quickly, and back it goes. This averages £100m per year – 1% of the overall current resource budget.

Allowing the Northern Ireland Executive to maintain this money in a “Runover Fund” would therefore add £100m to the following year’s budget on average; furthermore, the value of that would be considerably greater because in fact Departments would not have to rush in February and March to off-load their money (being easily able to negotiate keeping it in the following year’s pot).

Added to my implicit proposal that Northern Ireland should only have to make up the difference of doing welfare or legal aid its own way (thus breaching “parity”) and not be inflicted with the whole bill, and that it should only be required to do this in the specific areas where its policy is different, and the total saving could in fact exceed £200m, with value considerably higher than that.

Convert this into £1b over an Assembly term, allow Sinn Fein to take the credit, and the Assembly has a reasonable chance of survival. Whether anyone would care is another matter completely, of course…

Northern Ireland scarily like Greece

I am concerned again at those, predominantly on the Left but occasionally on the Euro-sceptic Right, who are suggesting that Greece is a victim of circumstances (or of the EU). It is a victim of its own gross stupidity, and the EU has been more than generous with its offers of assistance.

Greece effectively doubled public sector pay in the 2000s, and was then surprised as inflation soared in effect to as high as 30% – based entirely on borrowing money on the back of dodgy finance figures rather than actual exports (in fact its trade deficit came to approach 10% of GDP). In return, the EU offered an exceptional 30-year deal to sort out its government debt and half of private-sector debt was written off. Poor Greece, eh?! And how unreasonable of those pesky Eurocrats!

Northern Ireland has not done anything on that scale, it has to be said. However, it too did gain from a remarkable rise in public spending (and public sector jobs and salaries), with the subvention (the gap between revenue raised in Northern Ireland and public money spent) doubling from 1998 to 2007, plus significant EU funds. The Executive came to think that its job was merely to take credit for doling out money Northern Ireland had not actually earned and, like the Greek Government, made no allowance for the day when financial reality struck. The UK’s offer to Northern Ireland last year of “£2 billion more spending power” was significantly less generous than that of the EU but it was generous and, after all, the average Northern Irish person in the street has not suffered anything on remotely the same scale as the average (not ultra-rich) Greek.

The scales are different but the fundamental problem is the same – the governments involved have failed abjectly to address the basic problem of unsustainable public spending, including one particular party who insists that all the self-created problems were really someone else’s fault (alongside the fiction the restrictions are being imposed by someone else who is actually taking every reasonable step to help).

Northern Ireland and Greece are both behaving like noisy teenagers blaming everyone else for the bad consequences of what were actually their own actions, having been given countless opportunities to sort it out.

So, we now have supposedly “left-wing” parties more interested in deflecting blame for the problem than solving it. The worst thing is that the cost for this ludicrous self-preserving folly will be borne almost entirely by those who can least afford to pay it.

England U21s show spoiled players doomed to failure

I watched England U21s’ second half performances against both Portugal and Italy at the ongoing European Championship, and did so with absolute bemusement. Technically marginally more limited, they were tactically much inferior, and were thus eliminated quickly from the tournament by two countries with a sixth of the population.

This gives the lie to the old argument that the Premier League is blocking “English talent” because teams sign too many “foreigners”. On the contrary, the problem (as I have long argued here) is that the “English talent” does not exist in the first place. If it did, those players would be signed.

That does not mean that the Premier League does not cause a problem. The problem is that it offers too many opportunities to local players, not too few – and specifically that those opportunities come loaded with gold before a player has even really proved himself.

Young Raheem Sterling – who qualified for the U21s but opted for the seniors – is a very good case in point. On the back of one decent season with Liverpool, an Englishman of student age who has actually won precisely nothing in the game can now command £100,000 per week. This is utterly obscene, of course – and it inevitably means that he and his ilk will lack hunger. After all, if you can command that much without a single trophy to your name, why bother to get really good? And, of course, if your decision about where you will play is based solely on who pays the most (rather than about which club will care most about your ongoing development both as a professional sportsman and a young man), then you may miss the best option even if you are hungry.

Compare this with, say, Alexis Sanchez. From a poor mining village in Chile, Alexis signed on early with Udinese in Italy knowing that this would give him the opportunity of two loan spells back in the Southern Cone – one in Chile and one in Argentina – during which he could learn the game, not least the tactical and team aspects of it. Upon graduating to Udinese itself, he soon picked up all kinds of individual awards and off he went to Barcelona to win lots of trophies. Not content, however, with a bit-part role, he no doubt took a pay cut to come to Arsenal in a country where he did not speak the language and accept the challenge of leading a second-tier club (by global standards – I admit that as an Arsenal supporter and member!) to success. Even at the start of 2014/15, when Arsenal was playing poorly, Alexis’ determination and hunger were evident – it is highly doubtful you will see the same from any of the current England U21 crop at age 26.

English footballers, arguably like English children, are now spoiled – literally. Offered all the rewards on the basis of raw talent before they have really done anything to earn them, they miss core aspects of the game (such as how to work as a team and how to change things tactically even on the pitch). Sadly, this means embarrassment at the hands of countries like Portugal – smaller, poorer, but hungrier and better – will continue to be the norm.

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.

John McCallister’s “Opposition *and Collective Government* Bill” must pass

The latest shenanigans over the Stormont Budget have effectively “kicked the can down the road” (in that phrase beloved of Storocrats and Eurocrats alike) until October, during which several important things should happen. One of the many is the passage of John McCallister’s “Opposition Bill”, which will likely remain so named but is actually better presented as a “Collective Government Bill”.

For “Collective Government” (therefore, really, just “Government”) is what Northern Ireland lacks at devolved level. An inevitable consequence of Collective Government is, of course, an Opposition – but the lack of Opposition is the symptom of the problem, not the cause. The cause is allowing Ministers and parties to sit in “Government” while actually disagreeing with it…

The whole thing is a daft facade and the public know it. In the real world, Governments raise their own money and agree collectively on its allocation and on the policy and legislative framework in which that allocation will take place. In Stormont Fantasyland, on the other hand, the Government holds out the begging bowl to another Government and then randomly allocates it to a bunch of pet projects (often overly inefficient and even corrupt ones at that).

The first, most obvious intervention has to be proper, independent enforcement of the Ministerial Code. This is the norm in London and Edinburgh yet somehow Stormont has survived without it, relying on Ministers to investigate their own Special Advisers and Committees loaded with the Minister’s own colleagues to assess the outcome and such other ludicrous nonsense.

The second, almost equally obvious intervention has to be proper, transparent publication of party donations. Of the parties in our “Government”, only the Alliance Party does this. Shame on the other four, hiding from the taxpayers, the ratepayers and the electorate at large exactly what the sources of their money are. The potential for favours and outright corruption is clear to anyone.

The third, now increasingly obvious intervention has to be to stop the ludicrous nonsense of Ministers being allowed to vote against the Budget under which their Department is funded. Anywhere else in the democratic world, this is a resigning offence (for the whole Government, if they cannot get their Budget through the House). The most straightforward move towards real Government in Northern Ireland’s devolved institutions would be for the requirement after an Assembly Election to be a power-sharing Executive able to agree a Programme for Government and a Budget – anyone who does not agree with it, forms the “Opposition”.

That is where John McCallister’s Bill comes in. Clearly, it is technical and it still needs to be fully drafted and then the principles broadly agreed – but no one should withhold that broad agreement given the obvious need for the third intervention above. It will contain clarity that parties choosing to disagree with the Programme and the Budget will be looked after (in the sense of priority allocation of Committee Chairs/places, speaking rights and perhaps also research services and the like). It will in effect enforce “Cabinet responsibility”, not least because there will be an Opposition in place to challenge any irresponsibility on competence grounds as much as anything else. It will make the relevant arrangements for adequate Technical Groups to be formed and treated fairly.

If, in order to achieve cross-community consensus or qualified majority vote the requirement is for constant horse-trading, so be it. It is quite possible that Denmark will soon be governed by a coalition commanding just 53 of 179 seats (less than 30%), willing to work with different groups in parliament to govern on the basis of the broad popular will but knowing that 90 will ultimately be enough; this is a far cry from a government elected with 105 of 108 seats (97%) which cannot make a decision about anything because diametrically opposing views have to be brought together every time an attempt is made on any subject!

It is of course necessary to ensure in the context of Northern Ireland that any majority is cross-community and qualified, which does make it a slightly trickier place to govern. This is not the same thing, however, as saying that absolutely everyone must agree on everything; indeed, the whole purpose of a functioning democracy is that we respect decisions made by elected representations and their enforcement by the police and the law courts even when we disagree with them. By enforcing a requirement for collective responsibility in government, not least when setting a Budget, it is inevitable that not all will agree – those who don’t should form an Opposition and seek to overturn the decisions they do not like by appealing to the people at the ballot box, just as happens everywhere else in the Western World.


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