Showing posts from March, 2011

Feldman pledges to back Conservatives in Northern Ireland.

Andrew Feldman, the Conservative chairman, visited Bangor yesterday to open the party’s new campaign headquarters.   He subsequently addressed a dinner in North Down, setting out the Tories’ plans in Northern Ireland, in a speech which should boost morale among local activists.

Feldman made significant assurances to Conservatives here.  The Northern Ireland party wants to be treated just like it would in any other region of the United Kingdom - last night the chairman pledged to do just that and to ensure that local Tories have “the tools to succeed”.

His motives have been questioned elsewhere, but let’s be blunt: if Conservative Central Office had any intention of cutting Northern Ireland Conservatives adrift it wouldn’t sink more time and resources into the organisation here.

Yet Feldman opened the new office and pledged to staff it with a full time employee paid for by CCHQ.  The new staff member will report to one of the party’s most senior campaign directors and access the Cons…

Never a dull moment with the UUP

A rather hectic week last week prevented me from commenting on the UUP’s nightmare start to the election campaign.  When Thursday started with high profile stories of a sex scandal and a resignation splashed across the newspapers Tom Elliott could hardly have expected the day to get worse.  Cometh the hour, cometh McNarry, who decided to tear into Basil McCrea and John McCallister, live on the Nolan Show.

The pair had deviated from their leader’s view on Martin McGuinness and the First Minister’s position.  In league with North Belfast MLA, Fred Cobain, Elliott suggested to Liam Clarke that the UUP might form a single Assembly group with the DUP, after the election, in order to prevent Sinn Féin taking the top spot.  It was, he assured us, both possible and legal.  McCrea and McCallister begged to differ, insisting that unionists should simply accept the result of the election.

It’s quite a merry-go-round for the Ulster Unionists.  The leader surprises leading figures within his own p…

No Plan B for Northern Ireland as Nigel looks to burgle Slovenes again.

My personal trip to Serbia turned into something of an epic, thanks to travel complications.  Via seven airports, five delays and six flights, though, I finally made it back.  Tonight it’s Northern Ireland vs. Slovenia in a match which could signal a premature end to our qualification hopes.

The match in Belgrade posed more questions about Nigel Worthington’s future.  Fans questioned his choice of personnel before the game had even started, but it was the tactical decisions (or lack thereof) during play which were fatal.

Northern Ireland took a 1-0 lead, after unexpectedly dominating the first half.  Rather than press home the advantage the team reverted to the slow, negative approach which the manager so clearly favours.

Worthington was unfortunate that Lafferty had to be replaced by David Healy at half-time.  But he chose not to give the striker more support and he refused to make changes as his players became pinned back by wave after wave of Serbian attacks.

In the end the 2-1 de…

Minister McCausland continues his 'Kulturkampf'.

With a Conservative / Liberal coalition government in place at Westminster, hands-off government is  in vogue in London.  Not so in Belfast.

Here there are few more hands-on Executive members than Nelson McCausland.  His conception of the work of a culture minister is more in tune with a 1930s dictatorship than a liberal democracy in 2011.

Fresh from telling the Ulster Museum which history it should reflect in its collection and how much swearing should take place in the theatre, the minister intensifies his ‘Kulturkampf’ by demanding that Belfast Festival change its programme.

No such difficulties for McCausland’s chosen projects.  It’s a golden age for the Ulster Scot and only two days ago his department published a document promoting marching bands.  Talk about the silo mentality and ministers’ fiefdoms!

The latest intervention by McCausland asks for more pro-Israeli views at the Belfast Festival at Queens and “some southern gospel music”.  I wonder how exactly the minister would …

Government responsive on Corporation Tax issue.

The chancellor of the exchequer is still in the House of Commons defending his budget statement.  One of the eye catching measures announced by George Osborne this afternoon is an additional 1% cut in corporation tax, aimed at stimulating growth, on top of the 1% which was already planned.  In order to signal that Britain is ’open for business’ the rate will also fall in the succeeding three years, reaching 23% in 2014.

Appropriately enough, just before the budget debate, Owen Paterson announced that the consultation paper on devolving corporation tax raising powers to Northern Ireland will be published tomorrow.  It’s argued that we are peculiarly disadvantaged when it comes to attracting international investment, because our near neighbours in the Irish Republic enjoy a CT rate of just 12.5%.

The Secretary of State has long championed the idea that the Stormont Assembly should be allowed to cut taxes in order to make Northern Ireland a more competitive destination for business.  Th…

Opposition prospects.

Another note to point you in the direction of an article published elsewhere.  In this month's AgendaNI magazine I sum up the debate around an opposition in the Assembly.

Budget 'buddies' squaring up for six week sham fight.

My column from Friday's Irish News (not online).

In seven days time the assembly will dissolve ahead of May’s election.  That means anyone who’d got used to the current cuddly relationship between the DUP and Sinn Féin will have to readjust.

For a six week period the parties will inhabit only one of Northern Ireland’s parallel political realities.   It used to be known as normality.  It’s a place where the ‘budget buddies’ are implacable foes.

So where a week or two ago, he was lauding Caitriona Ruane and Conor Murphy for their prowess in the executive, DUP leader Peter Robinson will claim he’s the man to halt Sinn Féin in its tracks. His colleague in the first minister’s office, Martin McGuinness, will cease being a responsible partner in government and resume his role as chief menace to loyal Ulster.

Meanwhile the Shinners will stop acting like Sammy Wilson‘s backing chorus.  Instead we’ll hear a lot  about the “united Ireland project” which is rolling forward with irresistib…

Budget wrangle brings opposition closer.

Sorry for the slow blogging this week.  Part of the reason was a trip to watch Liverpool succumb to FC Braga in the Europa League.  Anything must be cheerier than that, even Northern Ireland politics, and in that spirit I direct you toward my piece in Wednesday's Belfast Telegraph.  I argue that, with de facto opposition developing at Stormont, sooner or later the institutions will have to change.

The contours of an opposition to the de facto coalition between Sinn Fein and the DUP are already taking shape. Outside Stormont the two larger parties pose as the bitterest of enemies, but in the Assembly chamber and around the Executive table they often act as one.During the Budget debate MLA after MLA rose to chastise the SDLP or accuse the UUP of complicity in "Tory cuts". The only way to tell Sinn Fein from DUP was the "cúpla focal" of Irish deployed by the Shinners.Across the Assembly the smaller parties looked embattled, huddling together against a tongue-lashi…

Politics at Stormont slowly coming to the fore.

In Friday's News Letter I contributed a column on the budget debate to the paper's Political Review.  If you can stomach the scarily detailed headshot (seriously guys - invest in some serious airbrushing technology!) it's now online.

Towards the end of the article I consider the upshot of the debate.

Michael McGimpsey and Danny Kennedy, the UUP’s executive members, voted explicitly against the budget. Alex Attwood, the SDLP’s social development minister, simply absented himself from the chamber, in order to avoid breaking the assembly’s ministerial code. It’s an odd way of doing business. But then the system of government in Northern Ireland is a strange system. On the one hand the smaller parties say their voices aren’t heard in the supposed five-party coalition. On the other hand, the larger parties claim that the UUP and SDLP are prepared to accept the trappings of power, but refuse to take responsibility for taking the difficult decisions. Neither argument is without m…

No whitewash here ...

So that's the Robinsons' rehabilitation completed then.  More than a year after it was begun.  Policing and Justice devolved, Peter Robbo and his mates preserved.  All is well in Northern Ireland.  Sleep well.

The budget and stadium construction. Put those celebrations on hold.

The very future of international football in Northern Ireland has been in doubt in recent years, thanks to a crumbling stadium at Windsor Park in Belfast.  The local league has also suffered, with inadequate facilities falling foul of health and safety requirements.  One of the few pieces of good news in the budget is that money has been set aside to improve sports venues in Northern Ireland.

The headline amount is £138 million, with GAA and rugby union getting £61.4m and £15m respectively.  Football is also set to claim a £61.4 million share.

The IFA has released a statement welcoming its allocation and, in difficult economic times, securing funding to renovate Windsor Park and other grounds is a result, but the Association should be aware that the figures require a bit of exploration.

Firstly, the aspiration is to give football £61.4 million over six years, rather than the four years covered by the budget.  The figures reveal (PDF) that it will come on stream slowly, with sport a…

The art of saying something and nothing.

UCUNF is dead says Tom Elliott.  Tell us something we don't know Tom.  He's already made it perfectly clear that the UUP will stand under its own banner in forthcoming elections.  So what's new?

Well the Ulster Unionist leader's relationship with the Secretary of State has deteriorated, after Owen Paterson declined to change the mechanism for nominating the First Minister.  Other than that - not much.

Jim Nicholson is still part of the Conservative group at the European Parliament.  There are few complications with Lord Empey acting as a Tory peer, now that he will not run for the Ulster Unionists at Stormont.  And the whole troublesome topic of taking a whip at Westminster can be deferred for another few years.

Budget debate rages on.

I've been dipping in and out of the budget debate at Stormont today.  A vote will take place some time later this evening.  Meanwhile both the SDLP and the UUP have proposed amendments to the Finance Minister's figures.

The Ulster Unionist suggested reallocation amounts to an extra £165 million for health in the first year of the budget.  It would be interesting to know whether there are any negotiations taking place outside the chamber.  Can we consider that the price-tag for UUP votes?

No to normalisation from First Ministers,

So the DUP and Sinn Féin are ‘furious’ (to use the journalistese) that David Cameron won’t constantly listen to their special pleading.  They're learning that this is a hands-off Prime Minister who allows his ministers to run their own departments, hence the government's go to man in Northern Ireland is Secretary of State, Owen Paterson.

Ed Miliband, who visited yesterday, claims in contrast that he would operate an “open door” policy (revolving door?) for Stormont’s top politicos.   Mark Devenport points out that the Labour leader is not so quick to communicate with his own supporters in Northern Ireland.  When David Cameron comes here, his followers are the first to know.

The chief difference is that Cameron always visits, in part, as an active Conservative politician seeking backing for his party and its allies in this part of the United Kingdom.  That doesn't make us exceptional enough for quasi-statesmen like Peter Robinson or Martin McGuinness.

Drop the ill-conceived sports' section of the Justice Bill.

The Assembly is set to consider the Justice Bill again today, once Edwin Poots is done thrilling members with the latest instalment on High Hedges.  Previously, when David Ford’s draft went before the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure, it became apparent that Part 4 of the Bill, which covers sport, is unfit for purpose.

I previously pointed out that David McNarry, while he couched it in typically inflated, sectarian terms, had a valid point when he argued that football should not be the sole focus of sections on ticket touts and banning orders.

GAA, football and rugby clubs around the country have also been alarmed by the sections on alcohol at sporting events.  It’s been pointed out that the legislation would not simply cover the pesky aggressive louts whom the authorities want to stop drinking - it would also put an end to ANY corporate hospitality at sports venues and punch a massive hole in many clubs’ business models.

Ulster Rugby has been particularly vocal, voicing its con…

Opposition politics already evolving at the Assembly.

So what did we learn from this morning’s Budget debate at the Assembly?  Not much in concrete terms.  We know that the Finance Minister claims (PDF) he has found an extra £120 million for health and £150 million for education, but the UUP and SDLP are still sceptical about the figures.

From a broader perspective one thing is certainly clear.  The contours of an Opposition to the de facto coalition at Stormont are already taking shape.  The exchanges in the chamber this morning, tattered and fractious though they were, looked a lot like a Budget Statement debate at Westminster.

The core of the Executive, Sinn Féin and the DUP, bummed up Sammy Wilson’s speech as best they could.  It was, after all, their programme which was revealed to the Assembly.  The UUP and SDLP scrambled to grasp the detail and respond, for the time being managing to land few blows.

In a so-called five party coalition it looks like dysfunction, in a voluntary coalition it looks a bit like normal politics.  The o…

Happy birthday Gorby - fitting recognition as President Medvedev decorates Gorbachev,

Yesterday Mikhail Gorbachev celebrated his eightieth birthday.  The architect of reform in the former Soviet Union is the epitome of a ‘prophet not without honour, except in his own country‘.  Feted in the rest of the world for dismantling the apparatus of a totalitarian state, he is a marginal figure in Russia.

There are signs, though, that his contribution is beginning to be recognised.  In the Manezh Central Exhibition Hall in Moscow, within spitting distance of the Kremlin’s walls, an exhibition of photographs,  ‘Mikhail Gorbachev: Perestroika’, charts his career and political evolution.

More significantly Gorbachev was awarded Russia’s highest national honour to mark his birthday.  President Medvedev decorated the former Soviet leader with the Order of St Andrew.  Medvedev spoke about the ’immense labour’ Gorbachev contributed to Russia and the USSR at a ’difficult and dramatic time’.

Elsewhere commentators are using the occasion to reflect upon Mikhail Sergeyevich’s legacy.  In…

i confused!

The Independent's brief i (there I did it) newspaper has been available in Northern Ireland for a couple of weeks now.  It's a decent stab at a quality paper in digestible form.   

It must be said though that the Independent sometimes takes the breath away with its lazy and ill-informed coverage of Irish politics, north and south. Compact cousin doesn't look like it's going to be much better.  Take today's 'Opinion Matrix', which compiles comment on selected stories, from 'home and abroad'. 

Under a caption, "Ireland's long road to prosperity", the paper notes, "The past few years have been appalling for Ireland's economy.  Could recent elections provide a much needed fillip?".  

Now although the paper erroneously refers to the whole of Ireland, we're talking the Republic here.  After all, that's where the election just took place.  

So which commentary does i choose to reproduce?

"Sustainable peace will require y…

Empey won't double job after all - UUP keeps the moral high-ground.

When the UUP included Lord Empey on its candidate list for the Assembly election I accused the party of attempting to wriggle out of commitments on double mandates on a technicality.  Eamonn Mallie reports that the former Ulster Unionist leader will not now contest his seat in East Belfast.  He notes "Reg Empey has set the bar on double-jobbing".  You can't say fairer than that.  Credit to the UUP for doing the right thing in this instance and taking the moral high-ground.

Libyans need only look to NATO's "successful" operation in Yugoslavia to prove intervention isn't needed.

What a month to debate military intervention in another country’s affairs!  The 24th of March marks the twelfth anniversary of NATO bombing Yugoslavia.  The supposed success of that mission buoyed the interventionists, inspired Tony Blair and set the scene for a bloody decade to come.      

Now the Gaddafi regime is proving resistant to concerted internal opposition to remove it and peaceful western pressure for it to go.  Yesterday David Cameron asked his Ministry of Defence to draw up plans for a “no fly zone” in Libya, which could prevent the Colonel bombing his enemies.  It’s not Belgrade 1999, but the rhetoric about not “standing idly by” has a similar ring.  Nick Robinson asks whether this could be "Cameron's first war".

No wonder some Libyans are nervous.  They need only look at Iraq to see the possible costs of western “help“.  The debate still rages as to whether the country is better off, now that its bloodthirsty dictator has been removed and replaced by fore…

Better late than flawed: The CSI Strategy

Over at the Integrated Education Fund's new blog I ask why the Executive's Programme for Cohesion, Sharing and Integration has stalled.