Is it goodbye to the UUP, SDLP, and Alliance?

12th May 2016: the Ulster Unionist Party announce their intention to head to the opposition benches.

19th May 2016: the SDLP claim that the Programme for Government was not ambitious enough and announce that they will be entering opposition.

I had thought this an exceptional move by the UUP and the SDLP. The DUP and Sinn Fein were quite clearly rattled. For the first time, in a very long time, the two parties had been truly sidelined by the significantly smaller parties.

Not knowing how to spin the news, both parties resulted to crass sniping. Sinn Fein constantly criticise the SDLP for being an irrelevant nationalist party, but note here how badly this experienced Sinn Fein MLA responded. Touchy.

It has been just over two weeks since Nesbitt announced that the UUP would move into opposition. In that time, the political ground has shifted multiple times.

There has been, and still is, much positivity around the move to opposition by both the UUP, SDLP, and Alliance. Indeed, at the time, I thought Nesbitt’s initial move was a stroke of political genius. And surely this much was confirmed by the sour reaction displayed by the two major parties?

25th May 2016: the NI Executive is announced. The DUP and Sinn Fein comprise the majority of the Executive with independent Claire Sugden filling the contentious Justice ministry.

Now the political landscape represents something never seen before here.

The DUP and Sinn Fein have moved from being uncomfortable partners in a mandatory coalition, to initially being lonely partners in government since the UUP and SDLP announced that they would not be taking their government seats.

Now, we have a remarkably different situation.

The cheap digs from the DUP and Sinn Fein at the UUP and SDLP for entering opposition have ended. There is no scent of crisis in the air. Martin McGuinness has been talking about a new era of government relations with the DUP. This could spell chaos for the future of the UUP, SDLP, and the Alliance Party.

A 2014 LucidTalk poll showed that 70% thought the Assembly was ‘not good’, ‘bad’, or, ‘very bad’. Despite this, in the recent Assembly elections the two main government parties were returned with a whopping mandate. It’s common knowledge that politics in Northern Ireland is a place apart from the rest of the UK. This poll shows the extent of this difference – despite huge dissatisfaction with the governing parties, the DUP did not lose a single seat and Sinn Fein lost just one.

Now that the DUP and Sinn Fein have picked themselves back up from having the rug pulled under them initially, trouble could be on the horizon for the smaller parties on two main fronts.

The number of seats is to be reduced by 18 at the next Assembly election. This could hurt these smaller parties unless they manage to carve out a significant role in opposition. Secondly, and bizarrely, people may actually begin to favour political stability and the government of DUP and Sinn Fein. If they managed to achieve such a significant mandate in a climate of political apathy, what might they achieve if they begin to govern efficiently together.

The UUP, SDLP, and Alliance should be cautious. Yes, they managed to control the agenda for a very brief period of time and clearly rattled ‘Marlene’. Now the two major parties are back in control, if these parties fail to continuously rattle the government from the opposition benches, and present a credible alternative, then they should be worried about their future.

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Speak Up On Peace, Politicians

You know it and I know it, time and time again our government in Northern Ireland is heralded as one giant failure of colossal proportions. If naming failures of the Northern Ireland Executive were a topic in a pub quiz, we’d have no problem winning that round.

The most recent political failures have been around welfare reform and not being able to secure a deal on that, which has subsequently led to the budget crisis and ministers warning that vital public services will be cut.

A more general failure of our politicians is the complete lack of any collective government. If my memory serves me correctly, I can remember back to an episode of The View where Stephen Farry and Danny Kennedy were complaining that the DUP and Sinn Fein were not consulting with them, their partners in government; to which John O’Dowd said the now famous reply, ‘so what?’

It seems that recently Stephen Farry forgot about that episode and the collective government he sought as he announced live on The Nolan Show that the planned expansion of the Magee Campus would not be going ahead, and judging by the political reaction, Farry must have forgotten to bring this one up at the Executive table. Tut tut.

Nevertheless for all the faults of our relatively young government, we should remember that we are still transitioning from a period of horrific conflict towards something of a more normal society and government.

That’s why we should remember exactly who the politicians are who form the meat of our government. They are men and women who, just 20 years ago never would have imagined being in the same room with one another, never mind in a government with one another. There are some who were key players in our conflict. 

That’s also why our politicians should realise the potential impact and influence that they could have on other conflicts in the world, especially on the current escalation in violence in the Israel/Palestine conflict if they decided to put their political grandstanding on hold. 

Of course Martin McGuinness isn’t going say outright that the IRA’s campaign of violence was wrong, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to read between the lines and realise that if he seriously still passionately believed that the IRA campaign was justified then – would he really be in government with his enemies now?

As for Peter Robinson, the leader of the party of ‘Never, Never, Never’, remember that he’s also in government with those he calls terrorists, those people who the DUP would never share power with… If he truly believed that the compromise wasn’t worth the cessation of daily violence, he also wouldn’t be in a coalition with his political enemies.

And so the two extremes of our political landscape may never admit in public the sacrifices that they took for peace, and for reasons of political expedience they won’t let on how significant their sacrifices were in 1998, but they will admit that peace is better than the conflict we had.

If that’s anything to go by, quite clearly our politicians know that compromise is better than their previous entrenched, tribal positions that allowed conflict to flourish, and they’re living proof that in divided societies, compromise is the only solution to ending conflict.

Yes, we are a small country, and yes our government is riddled with failures, but a dysfunctional government is better than a democratic deficit and the almost daily deaths during the troubles and just because we are a small country doesn’t mean we cannot be a world player in other countries conflict resolution. If there is one thing that our politicians have got right so far, it’s that their compromises have delivered a relative peace and if there’s one thing that our politicians should be able to speak up on, together, as a united front, it should be that.

Over to you, politicians. 

 

 

 

 

The Hallett Review – Are The Worms Coming Out Of The Can – An Executive Summary, Summary

Today The Hallett Review was published after a little delay, originally it was intended to be completed around the end of May. The aims of the Review, which was undertaken by Dame Heather Hallett, was to ‘produce a full public account of the operation and extent of the administrative scheme for OTRs, to determine whether any letters sent through the scheme contained errors, and to make recommendations as necessary on this or related matters that are drawn to the attention of the inquiry.

While I’m sure not many people will read the full report, I imagine that most people with an interest will at least read the executive summary and despite only reading the executive summary so far, (as I’ve been trying to catch a little of the sun whilst it’s out) a number of interesting points have popped up and grabbed my attention. 

The purpose of the review is outlined at the start of the document and one of its purposes is to ‘investigate and form a view on whether any of the letters issued under the scheme contained errors. In this context ‘errors’ means the possibility that the letter contained inaccurate or misleading information, as in the Downey case.’

Granted then that one of the purposes of the review was supposed to be to investigate if there have been any other errors, I found it strange that the next line goes on to say that, ‘to investigate and form a view in respect of errors, the reviewer will not be required to examine the detail of every individual case dealt with under the scheme’. In my mind, if you are seeking to fully review as to whether or not there have been any other mistakes, you would want to examine the detail of every individual case.

Point 2.25 of the review notes that there was a ‘spike’ in the number of individuals receiving letters of assurance between February 2007 and October 2008, however the report does not (at this stage) divulge into any detail as to why this was. Also, the report notes that during this same time frame, the status of 36 individuals changed from ‘wanted’ to ‘not wanted’. Again, at this stage in the report it doesn’t outline why there was such a spike in the change in status of individuals, although later the report does speculate various reasons as to why the status of so many individuals would change, such as; ‘much of the work had been done during previous reviews, because evidence no longer existed and/or in part because the Operation Rapid team in this period may have applied a higher threshold to categorise someone as ‘wanted’.’

Clearly then there are still questions to be answered in order to put any speculation to bed, although it seems very odd to me that such a high number of individuals would have their status changed over such a short period of time without knowing a precise reason as to why this was.

The final thing that stuck me as being very strange is that in point 2.67 of the document Lady Hallett notes that;

‘to my mind the administrative scheme, properly implemented, was not unlawful.’ 

 It is being reported widely that the OTR scheme wasn’t unlawful, so on this point I could be very far off the mark in placing too much emphasis on the wording of that sentence. However Lady Hallett has included a whole section in the executive summary (and later in the review) of criticisms of the administrative scheme and so far it’s very unclear to me whether or not Lady Hallett holds the opinion that, actually the scheme wasn’t implemented properly, and then if the lawfulness of the administrative scheme rests upon if whether or not the scheme was properly implemented, then finding out Lady Hallett’s view of whether she believes the scheme to be implemented properly or not could be key.

I should add that these are only some points that I found interesting on a reading of the executive summary, and I could well find that once I have read the whole document all of my questions have been cleared up. One thing is for sure though, is that I have plenty of reason to read on.  

David Ford and The Seven Point Plan

Today Alliance Party Leader and Justice Minister, David Ford unveiled his seven point plan to ‘Reboot Stormont’. Although, it may be more accurate to say that he dusted off some, not exactly new proposals, dressed them up in a shiny new press release and named them such that Stormont sounds like an old dysfunctional computer.

The first point addresses changing from a mandatory coalition to a voluntary one, and then having that voluntary coalition subject to a vote of approval in the Assembly. The aim of this would be to force all of the parties to role up their sleeves after the 2016 Assembly election and enter negotiations with each other in the hope that some sort of deal between the parties could be hammered out to allow for a voluntary coalition, in order for some sort of, what we may call ‘normal governance’. The Alliance Party is hoping that by introducing a voluntary coalition, the parties will then have to form a Programme for Government, which in theory should pave the way for the Assembly to turn into a functioning legislature, rather than simply a slightly advanced talking shop.

I’m not sure how much hope can, or should, be staked on the parties working together to form a voluntary coalition in 2016, especially if the most recent round of post-Haass negotiations are to judge by. Who knows – by 2016 if relations continue on the current downward trajectory, trust between the parties will be dangerously low and we could be in a situation where our institutions collapse before we see the Assembly election.

It’s common knowledge that politics in Northern Ireland doesn’t operate on the traditional ‘left/right’ spectrum and seems to instead operate on the ‘crisis spectrum’ in which we lurch from crisis to crisis. In a nutshell the Alliance Party hope that if the parties in 2016 are able to hammer out some form of deal that would return a voluntary coalition to Stormont, their idea is that the resulting coalition would be given legitimacy and hence added stability because of the Assembly having to give any voluntary coalition the thumbs up.

Another point that David Ford makes is that in order to reboot Stormont we need an opposition that is free to hold the government of the day to account. It’s very clear that the Alliance Party feel that they are the most qualified to speak on matters regarding an opposition in the Northern Ireland Assembly due to their time and experience gained when they were in opposition from around 2007-2010.

The Alliance Party clearly support a fully funded opposition and say that they will give support to John McCallister’s Opposition Bill when it is introduced as well as all attempts to create an opposition.

So far, so good… But hold up – who’s actually going to form the much talked about opposition in Stormont? What isn’t so clear is whether or not the Alliance Party are thinking about forming an opposition themselves. It doesn’t seem likely in the near future and members of the Alliance Party would probably tell you that they cannot afford to put the stability of our political institutions in jeopardy by leaving the Department of Justice Ministry. This then begs the question as to just how much the AP wish to develop a formally funded opposition. Yes, they may well support it in their rhetoric, but just how much are they willing to rock the boat to see the institutions at Stormont shaken up – or ‘rebooted’, as David Ford would say…

 

I do have a confession to make, when I read point four of Ford’s seven point plan I was left scratching my head… “Greater co-operation between Ministers requiring them to work together under law”. What the bloody hell does that actually mean in practice?

Apparently, what this translates to is that the Alliance Party would seek to make co-operation between Ministers a statutory responsibility, requiring ministers to work with each other to prevent, or reduce the likelihood of Ministers taking each other to court on a whim or going on solo runs.

It’s quite obvious that the AP just crave to see some sort of normal governance on The Hill with collective responsibility and joined up governance, but with David Ford’s statement not exactly getting passions running high for a constructive summer debate on how we reform Stormont, especially from other parties, I just wonder how much David Ford’s Executive colleagues are taking him and his seven point plan seriously?

Obviously Ford has become frustrated with politics in Northern Ireland otherwise he wouldn’t be suggesting that Stormont needs a reboot. Maybe the time has come for the Alliance Party to take some ballsy decisions about whether or not they will continue to stay in the Executive, because ultimately, if Ford and his colleagues want to see reform, unless they start to talk the talk of potentially leaving the Executive unless Ford gets some of his reboot agenda, the Alliance Party will continue to have less influence than Willie Frazer and Jamie Bryson at the decision-making table.

Robinson Got it Wrong, But So Too Did Anti-Racism Protestors

When Peter Robinson, First Minister of Northern Ireland, defended Pastor McConnell’s controversial remarks about Islam, and then went on to kindly add that he would trust Muslims to go to the shops for him, this led to Alliance Party MLA Anna Lo giving a very just and emotional interview, which for me highlighted perfectly the very real impact that racism has on people’s lives.

The comments by Pastor McConnell and Peter Robinson then led to two large anti-racism protests on the streets of Belfast.

Clearly, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist or a brain surgeon to realise that tarring a whole religious group in one single swipe nurtures deep residing intolerance at a frightening speed, creating the space for prejudices to rise to the surface of society – especially given that the context to such remarks has already been an increase in racist attacks.

Although if I can say Peter Robinson and Pastor McConnell got it wrong, so too did some of the supposedly ‘moral’ protestors.

Two anti-racism protests were quite rightly organised as a show of solidarity and to show opposition against the rise of intolerance and the surfacing of prejudices that have led to serious attacks on ethnic minorities. It would be crazy though to try to say that the protests weren’t also organised as a result of Peter Robinson’s comments.

The reality is that Peter Robinson’s comments were out of order, inflammatory and could be seen to encourage distrust and anger, as well as a fear towards ethnic minorities and Muslims.

What completely boggled my mind though was that some protestors who were supposedly out on an anti-racism protest seemed more keen to turn it into an anti-Peter Robinson protest.

There were plenty of placards slating Peter Robinson as well as an ‘I’m shopping for Peter’ flash mob.

I’m not arguing that you shouldn’t highlight and protest against prejudices, and I’m most certainly not a Peter Robinson apologist, but how can you claim the moral high ground, and protest against someone’s comments that could inspire hatred and anger towards ethnic minorities, but then proceed to channel your anger towards one particular person. By doing this you create an atmosphere where people think; actually, because I disagree with what Peter Robinson said, I’m justified in targeting him.

This is exactly what Pastor McConnell and Peter Robinson were doing when they made their remarks about Islam, they felt that it was okay to make such remarks because they disagreed essentially with the Islamic doctrine. This is also exactly what protestors were doing when they directed their anger towards Peter Robinson, they felt that they were justified in doing so because they disagreed with him.

When you channel your anger against one particular person, as was the case with those who channelled their anger towards Peter Robinson, you become the very repulsive thing that you are protesting against. How can you protest against intolerance by showing that you also have a tolerance deficiency?

Not only do you lose the moral authority as to what you are protesting against, you miss the point that actually, racism goes so much further and deeper than just Peter Robinson.

Surely both types of anger are one and the same, but it just depends what side of the fence you are on as to what actions and comments you deem acceptable?

Why I won’t dip my feet into the political activism pool for a while

Growing up I’d never really been interested in politics, well that’s not really accurate. I had no interest in politics nor did I have any political knowledge. Once I completed my GCSEs and got back into school I found I had to choose a fourth subject to study for my A-levels. A history teacher of mine suggested that I may be interested in politics and it would be worth a try at least, so I decided to give it a shot as I had nothing to lose – if I didn’t like it, I could drop it after a few weeks anyway.

So there began my political journey. I was now a student of politics even though I didn’t have any idea whatsoever of what this actually meant. Growing up all I knew politics to be about was that some politicians somewhere didn’t build me and my friends a promised playpark in our estate, meaning that we only had a bus stop to play football against. (One of my friends claims that I nervously whispered to him in one of my first classes, ‘so, what is democracy?’) I really did have a lot to learn…

Once I started studying politics a rather strange thing happened – I became hooked. The subject was genuinely interesting to me and I was somehow annoyed at myself that I didn’t take an interest earlier. Possibly, this was because to say that the learning curve I was on was a steep one, could fairly adequately be described as an understatement.

Naturally as my studies progressed I began to learn more about our political parties and I learned more about my own political views which was followed by my realisation that there was literally not a single political party that represented the vision of politics that I wanted to see.

Que NI21. In my second year of studying politics NI21 was on the horizon, I remember watching John McCallister resign from the UUP live on The View and I was filled with hope. Hope that there might finally be a political party that I could relate to. So after becoming a bit of a political nerd/geek I jumped at the decision to become a political activist, I assumed that this was surely just a natural progression. So I got involved.

It wasn’t long after becoming a party political activist I found myself self-censoring every single word that I would post on social media in my attempts not to bring the party into disrepute. Maybe I was over-sensitive? Probably. Anyway I didn’t like the fact that I was doing this. I’m young and on the whole I am a sensible enough person (I like to think), so I hated that I was always being too aware of what I was posting. I felt like this was me diluting my own thoughts, my own personality. Yes some people will be thinking that, what I thought was self-censorship could be called taking responsibility – and that’s fine, but it made me feel uncomfortable.

One thing that I am is a questioning person. It’s in my nature to be inquisitive and I make no apologies for that, even if I do ask a few silly questions. I remember fondly the time that I tweeted a question in to Mark Carruthers to ask of Mike Nesbitt during a UUP party conference and it gave me a buzz. It excited me the thought that I could ask questions of political leaders and hold them to account.

After being a political activist for NI21 for some time I felt myself losing my passion for asking questions as this was replaced with a concern to always defend the party line rather than asking questions of others and of my own political views. This made me uncomfortable – I didn’t like the idea that I was becoming a nodding head, similar to the type of those dogs that you see sitting in the front of cars. Nodding being the only function they know. It seemed counter intuitive to my nature.

Other political activists will tell me that they don’t agree with everything their political parties do but my qualm is that many don’t feel comfortable to express their grievances in public and that’s something for me that I was personally not happy about. We have a political culture where it’s okay to disagree with party policy, but my god don’t you dare go saying it in public.

I don’t apologise If you were hoping to see NI21 being slated in public because you’ve come to the wrong place and wasted a few minutes of your life as that isn’t what this piece is about, and nor should it be twisted in that respect. If anything this is a criticism of myself. NI21 has some truly fantastic people, if you are ever in need some inspiration you only have to look to some of the candidates that are standing for NI21 that are passionate and committed individuals in their conquest to make Northern Ireland a truly better place. Because of that I am going to continue to help some candidates to get elected on Thursday 22nd, but after that I want to dip my toe into the journalistic pool.

During my involvement in NI21 I’ve had a brilliant time, I’ve made lifelong friendships and learned a lot about myself – maybe most importantly that party political activism isn’t quite for me at the minute, maybe it’s a maturity thing, maybe not. Time will tell.

Adjusting The Progressive Focus

Anyone who has been on Twitter over the past few weeks and months will have no doubt noticed that the election season is now in full swing. Petty arguments and point scoring are now well up the agenda as political parties and their, more often than not young members (and I don’t exclude myself from this criticism) are the main perpetrators of this heinous part of our politics.

A major overhaul and rethink of strategy is desperately needed.

Often I have seen, and embarrassingly sometimes myself been involved in, petty point scoring on Twitter and all too often it is between NI21 and the Alliance Party. In most cases I am confident that what comes across as point scoring is probably well intentioned. But this must change.

This must change because, on the surface it seems logical that the Alliance Party are going to be the main political competitor with NI21 for the moderate vote and most would expect to see the fruitless politicking intensify come even closer as election day dawns.

What we must remember though that neither NI21 nor the Alliance Party are the main problem. As Ian James Parsley noted in an article earlier this week, “with a few honourable exceptions, the DUP and Sinn Féin are not made up of reasonable, rational people. One thinks the world was founded 6000 years ago; worse still, the other thinks the IRA’s terrorist campaign was legitimate.” Unfortunately for the majority of people who want our politics to progress we have almost daily reminders of the barriers to the progression we want and need. We only have to look at the spat last week between Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson, or indeed if we glance across to the Ulster Unionist’s Tom Elliott who when addressing the comments made by Martin McGuinness regarding the Orange Order, UVF and PUP acting as “one and the same” he managed to display an award winning performance of whataboutery as the phrase ‘what about Castlederg’ is becoming something of a regular occurrence.

Therefore for every minute that is spent between the Alliance Party and NI21 fruitlessly attacking each other on Twitter, we are seriously missing the bigger picture, or the elephant in the room as the metaphor goes. We must re-adjust our focus to the bigger problem.

This does not mean that NI21 and the Alliance Party should never engage on Twitter, or try to pretend that we are happy-go-lucky liberals that smile and agree with each other all of the time. Of course it doesn’t, because we aren’t the same party, it’s natural that we are going to disagree on issues. It means that when we engage it’s imperative that it must be constructive and we cannot allow it to become the tit-for-tat pettiness characteristic of the status quo, as the moment we lower politics to that level, we lower our politics to the level that we seek to replace. Truly real leadership and fresh politics will be ushered in by focusing our energy on the problem, instead of pettily chipping away, when not necessary at the solutions for no other reasons than purely for political expedience.

Why We Need Opposition – A Living Example

 You may or may not know that Northern Ireland’s newest political party, NI21 – Set up by John McCallister and Basil McCrea have an aim to normalize politics in Northern Ireland.

Part of the remedy to Stormont’s squabbling sectarian structures has been prescribed by NI21 MLA John McCallister, who is in the process of drafting up his Opposition Bill which will aim to set up a formal opposition in the Assembly.

 For me, one of the main selling points of the creation of an opposition has to be a result which would hopefully see greater accountability and scrutiny of Government Ministers.

Government Ministers are woefully held to account at the minute. A reason for this? One reason is that the committees don’t seem to have any real fire power to give a Minister a real grilling, and, even when there is a small chance of a Minister getting every little word or statement that they make pulled to pieces – the rallying call goes out, and whoever the Ministers colleagues on the committee happen to be will be ready to defend the Minister to the end. This is not how they should function.

Another reason is the more obvious one that there is no formal opposition. Think of how absurd that is. That in a modern Western liberal democracy, we have no opposition to the government?

Our Government isn’t being held to account as effectively as it should be, this much is clear to see. We are in desperate need of a formal opposition to dive in and tackle all the nitty gritty notoriously laborious detail that often the media outlets won’t do because, well for a start it isn’t their job to hold the government to account and secondly I doubt that it would have a welcomed impact on the ratings.

However, here’s a living example as to why we need an opposition.

On exactly the 14th November 2011, the BBC reported that Health Minister Edwin Poots ‘launches car smoking ban consultation’. The BBC then reported that Mr Poots said, “Passive smoking is a health issue which I take very seriously, particularly when those affected by it are children, who are more vulnerable to second-hand smoke as they breathe more rapidly and inhale more pollutants per pound of body weight than adults.”

 I agree with Mr Poots, passive smoking is a health issue, and I’m glad that he takes the issue very seriously. Further, I’m glad that he said he would consider banning smoking in all private cars, as I indeed think it should be.

But we just have a slight problem. Where is the consultation over two years on from when it was reportedly launched? Mr Poots told us that he takes the issue seriously so he surely must have it completed? After all It has been over two years since the consultation was supposedly launched, according to the BBC.

On 1 June 2013, after searching endlessly on the DHSSPS website in an attempt to try to find the consultation, I lodged a FOI request, asking if I could have access to it. Here is a snippet of the reply which I received; ‘A public consultation exercise on options around banning smoking in private vehicles is expected to be undertaken before the end of 2013.’

Okay, so it appears that by June, no consultation had been undertaken. Which is fairly pathetic. But I have been assured by an official from within the Health Department that there will be one before the end of 2013? So I waited it out.

It’s getting very close to the end of 2013 and still I sadly don’t see any publication of a consultation on banning smoking in all cars on the DHSSPS website, nor does there appear to be one in the process of being undertaken. I thought that I should double check that I was in the right – So I  phoned various outlets within the Department and it doesn’t seem like anybody there has any information at all on whether the consultation had been undertaken (never mind being completed by the end of 2013 as I was told).

 Do we need an opposition then? Yes, of course.

 In a properly functioning democracy, it shouldn’t be up to university students like me to have to probe for answers to find out if a Government department is doing what a minister has said they would do, it should be up to the opposition, which should be formally funded so that it can fully hold the Government to account. It should also be said that it doesn’t matter how big or small an issue appears – and this issue in particular is a serious one – Ministers should be held to account.

The likelihood is that Government Ministers aren’t going to want to push for a pesky opposition that will (hopefully) always be on their backs, checking and then checking once again if they are carrying out what they said and acting as a proper checking mechanism.

In the end it will be the public who benefit from a formally funded opposition as we will have a clearer vision as to just how well those in the corridors of power are actually fulfilling the functions as they have said.

Loyalist Leadership – Now You See It. Now You Don’t

This morning on today’s Nolan show the PUP’s ex-leader Dr John Kyle did something remarkable which no other influencing figure within loyalism has been prepared to do this far.

That of course, was to show some leadership in the interest of the greater good.

In relation to the large protest this Saturday Dr Kyle said; ‘my personal view is that I would advise them not to do it on a Saturday.’ His reasoning for this was then that ‘Saturday is a very important trading day for business and that we do not want to discourage people from going.’

Sadly it seems that after Dr John Kyle came off the Nolan show he realized that what he said was much too sensible and hence took to Twitter to seemingly withdraw his comments, resulting in the same old situation of leaving loyalism with a leadership deficit.

This is actually very sad to see from Dr John Kyle who is a smart man. Dr Kyle is turning the issue away from one about responsibility and into one about rights. I do not know of a single person who has said that the protesters should have the right to protest taken away from them. Of course they shouldn’t.

This is about responsibility. As Dr Kyle clearly recognized in his interview with Nolan that the large protest will potentially put people off coming into the city center to shop at a pivotal time for the traders of Belfast.

All I would ask is, Dr Kyle… Can we have the loyalist leadership back please?

Northern Ireland and Europe – So What?

With the European elections looming ever closer as every day passes it has struck me that in Northern Ireland, there doesn’t ever seem to be much of a conversation about how Europe actually affects us.

I suppose one reason for this could be that Europe is perceived to be a distant entity in which we only really hear much about come election time. Another possible reason is that if we’re honest with ourselves we will probably recognise that European elections tend to be not a lot more than a simple sectarian headcount.

Perhaps it is then timely then that as Alex Attwood has now been officially selected to stand as the SDLP candidate in the European election, and as he happened to be at an event several weeks ago in QUB which sought to highlight what 40 years of EU membership has meant for Northern Ireland that I outline some of his arguments.

I got the impression that Alex Attwood was not afraid to emphasise the failings of our attitudes towards Europe, although I imagine that this stems from the fact that he is also unashamedly pro-Europe. Alex outlined how in the North we are not doing near enough in Europe, especially in the area of drawing funds. Alex, focused his attention on how, in relation to FP7, the drawdown from the North is around £50 million which contrasts to the South who attract much more funding as a result of the southern government placing ministers in the right areas to probe and get the funding which is available. So if this is the case, why are we not placing the right people in the right areas to draw funds for us in Northern Ireland? Alex then went on to outline that OFMDFM do not spend enough time in Europe and that we need to look to the South and how they exploit opportunities.

Getting down to the real detail of how Europe affects Northern Ireland. Alex told of how the EU is much more than just being about grants. He outlined his aspiration that he would like to see more nations joining Europe so that better relations could be built. I would find it hard to disagree with Alex on this point that the EU is indeed more than just about grants. There does seem to be a perception in Northern Ireland when we think about Europe that all we think about is peace monies and farmers.

In reality, as Dr Cathal, a Senior Research Fellow at the ISCTSJ at QUB outlined, the EEC offered a neutral space to build relationships between the British and Irish in order to help deal with conflict transformation. Further, he went on to outline that the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement was a product of this neutral space. Of course the context of the past is important in understanding the future, however, we maybe should feel obliged to ask ourselves that – although the successes of Europe in the past may have been plentiful towards bringing peace to Northern Ireland –  now that we have a stable peace, how effective is Europe for us?

As Alex went on to talk about the roles of both the Dublin and London governments towards Northern Ireland it is maybe not surprising that Alex would not hesitate to champion Dublin’s efforts over London’s, but he went on to say that there would not be new Peace monies – namely Peace Four, were it not for the Dublin government as he claimed that London had sat on the sidelines. This poses a series of questions for us. If Alex’s claim is indeed true, why did London sit on the sidelines? Why should it effect us if London did sit on the sidelines, are our MEP’s incapable of securing peace money themselves?

I thought it was also very interesting that Alex rejected the notion of Europe being a peace project and noted that this idea of Europe being a peace project is a myth. Instead he highlighted the importance of being part of a large market as he went on to say that due to the rise of China as a global market, we will lose out if we remove ourselves from Europe as our island as a trading centre would be squeezed. Is this the key reason for us to stay in Europe? The fact that as far as trading goes, if we were to remove ourselves from Europe we may find that we as an economy slowly sink in terms of being a relevant trading power.

If one thing is clear it is that the debate on Europe needs to be kick-started into a wider debate in Northern Ireland and part of that is up to our politicians to lay all of the facts onto the table for us so that proper, mature debate can be had.