Thursday, 11 December 2014

It's People Crunching, Not Number Crunching

Rarely can a trip across the Irish Sea to deal with a Stormont crisis have seemed as appealing to a British prime minister as this week’s must to David Cameron. His meetings with the warring parties on ‘the hill’ will offer a brief respite from the bloodletting back at Westminster where – quite apart from his battle with Labour – his coalition partners have now turned on him and begun rubbishing his Chancellor’s sums.

The critics would seem to have a point. George Osborne’s figures have been so far off the mark, they could have been driven by Mark Thatcher.

For a party which prides itself on its business acumen, it’s made a poor fist of affairs. As Ed Balls pointed out, the government will have borrowed over £200bn more during its lifetime than it planned in 2010. That is precisely the kind of behaviour the Conservatives derided their Labour predecessors for.

And now Mr Osborne is demanding movement on the cuts to Welfare. He calls it “reform”, but that is sophistry. The Tories are less concerned with number crunching than people crunching. And you don’t have to be a genius to know that the effects will be disastrous here.

It was a predecessor of Mr Cameron’s (and possibly one of his heroes), the late Baroness Thatcher, who famously said that Northern Ireland was as British as Finchley. Yet a research paper, presented to MPs in October, provided evidence to the contrary.

The paper examined unemployment throughout the UK’s 650 parliamentary constituencies. Remarkably, it showed that in terms of finding work, Northern Ireland boasted three of the five worst. Foyle was top of the list, of course; West Belfast was second; and North Belfast fifth (for good measure, West Tyrone weighed in at 8th). Finchley and Golders Green – the object of Baroness Thatcher’s comparison – was 359th on the list. The Prime Minister’s Witney constituency was 623rd.
Foyle was top of the heap, too, for youth unemployment – among 18-24 year olds – with the two Belfast constituencies also making the top six; and all three featured in the top six for long-term unemployment.

So when Mr Cameron arrives here this afternoon, from the opposite end of the economic spectrum, someone will have to explain to him that – despite what he may have been told – Northern Ireland is not as British as Finchley. He won’t, of course, have any idea what life is really like here (I can’t imagine there was a ‘free meal queue’ at Eton). But it is the responsibility of our politicians – all of them – to put him in the picture; after all, they are paid – and ‘expensed’ – to represent us.

They might choose to remind him of his joint pledge with Nick Clegg, in their 2010 Programme for Government, to “support sustainable growth and enterprise, balanced across all regions and all industries”.

That plainly hasn’t happened. And as if that dismal record wasn’t bad enough, George Osborne now plans to heap even more misery upon us. This is unusually sadistic – even for a Tory.

The DUP’s “No more money” mantra seems to have changed in recent days. The party appears to have accepted the need for some kind of financial package, not merely to lubricate the wheels of government but to keep the vehicle on the road.

Nobody wants a car crash at Stormont – not the DUP; not Sinn Féin; not the Irish government and certainly not the British. Unlikely as it may seem, Stormont has been touted around the world as an inspiration to societies trying to emerge from conflict. David Cameron will not want to go down in history as the Prime Minister on whose watch it juddered to a halt.

As any student of Irish history will tell you, “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity” and Cameron’s arrival does, indeed, present precisely that: an opportunity. While we might not have everyone singing off the same hymn sheet, we do – unusually – have most of the main parties humming in some kind of unison.

The DUP can behave coyly, with a general election just around the corner and the Tories possibly needing their votes; Republicans can play hardball, reminding Mr Cameron of Britain’s responsibility for what happened here (that’s a part of Legacy that seems to have slipped from Westminster minds and spending plans). We have been left with appalling levels of ill health – both mental and physical – deprivation and poverty.

It would require a major move on the Prime Minister’s part to cut a special deal over the North. But he rose to the occasion – rhetorically, at least – over Bloody Sunday. And in that programme for government, he and Nick Clegg emphasised their preparedness to turn old thinking on its head.

Mr Cameron wrote in this morning’s Belfast Telegraph that he was determined to do everything he could to help “resolve the outstanding issues and secure agreement”. Let’s put him to the test.

The proof of the pudding will be in the eating. The next few days should tell whether we get our just desserts. 

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

A Word in their Ear

“The Orange Order, of course, has every right to stage its march. But for the sake of order, and our nation's image before the world, it should desist.”

These are not my words, nor are they a reference to the controversial Twelfth parade past Ardoyne shops. They were penned by a leader writer at Scotland’s Sunday Herald, about a march due to take place in Edinburgh shortly before September’s independence referendum.
Still, the advice might be even more applicable to their brethren in North Belfast.

The clock-watchers have been chipping in to the debate, estimating that Saturday’s banned homeward leg by the Ligoniel lodges would take only six minutes to complete. No big deal, they say. Why all the fuss?

Why indeed?

If the march is, as they would have it, no big deal, why withdraw from a talks initiative over it? Why draw up a protest campaign against it? Why unite with political opponents over it? Why make common cause with parties linked to paramilitary groups over it? Why heighten tension and spread fear over it?

No big deal? Actions – or more accurately reactions – speak louder than words.

Unionist politicians have struck discordant notes in the days since their “graduated response” to the Parades Commission’s determination was announced. Arlene Foster told yesterday’s Good Morning Ulster programme that she was “very clear” what the graduated response was.  Just over an hour later, her party colleague Gregory Campbell told Stephen Nolan that they didn’t know what was going to happen: “...We don’t know how these things will play out.” For the first time in my recollection, the right hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing.
I suspect things may play out rather badly.

In its determination last week, the Parades Commission seemed to suggest that the reaction to last year’s ruling – “such as the call by some within the Orange Order to protest against the July 2013 determination, a protest which culminated in violence...” – influenced last Thursday’s decision. In terms of next year’s attempt to complete the homeward leg to Ligoniel, the Orange Order and the collective Unionist leadership may already have shot themselves in the foot.
While politicians have been delivering mixed messages about the sinister-sounding “graduated response”, they’re not nearly as confused as the so-called rationale underpinning this latest campaign.

Nowadays, Unionist ‘culture’ is expressed overwhelmingly through flags, parades and bonfires. We’re asked to believe that this culture is under threat but evidence suggests otherwise. Only last week, a study by Queen’s University reported that the number of parades here had more than doubled in the eight years up until 2013. The number of Union, Ulster, loyalist paramilitary and even Ku Klux Klan flags flying here would keep a small army of seamstresses busy round the clock. And bonfire towers climb so high into the air that you can barely make out whose image is being burned. The collaboration of parties, four of whom were cutting lumps out of one another only a couple of months ago, makes the situation ‘curiouser and curiouser’.

Unionist leaders have spouted some rubbish to justify their “graduated response”. Acknowledging a threat to the institutions, Peter Robinson pointed the finger at the Parades Commission. By the same logic a motorist might blame the Highway Code after being caught speeding.

Most bizarre of all has been the pretence that this is all being done to channel justifiable anger and protect democracy. Normally, at this point, children in the audience cry out, “Look behind you.”

If Unionist leaders do turn around, they’ll see people linked to groups which brought terror to communities like Ardoyne. They make strange bedfellows.

The Ligoniel controversy is not simply about a 6 minute march. It’s about 40 years of history. Or 100 years. How long have you got?

Shrewder Orangemen in Scotland would do their brethren here a big favour if they called them on the ‘QT’ and advised them to desist at Ligoniel – for the sake of order and their nation. 

Friday, 30 May 2014

Less Bang for our Buck

This morning’s explosion at the Everglades Hotel caused extensive damage to the business’s reception area but I fear the damage to Derry’s reputation is even more severe. Those trying to attract tourists to the area must be deeply frustrated. Those trying to attract jobs and investment must despair.

The people most directly affected by the attack included family members preparing for a funeral today; guests with medical needs (which heroic hotel staff still managed to meet); and ordinary Derry people enjoying a night out. This was an attack not just on a hotel, but on the people of Derry, and visitors from elsewhere. I haven’t even mentioned people who were in the vicinity while the device was being manufactured and transported.

Ironically, while the bombers were preparing their assault, I was attending an event in the city at which respected local dramatist, Dave Duggan, was launching his latest play, ‘Denizen’, in which the fictitious last dissident republican is challenged to lay down his arms. In a further irony, at precisely the same time, people who helped make City of Culture 2013 such a success for Derry were being fêted at the Northern Ireland Tourism Awards.

It is obvious that the vast, vast majority of Derry people disapprove of what happened at the Everglades in the early hours. This kind of activity has the support of only a minority – a tiny minority – who are either unaware of, or even worse indifferent to, the impact of continuing bomb attacks on Derry’s reputation. Take it from me: this explosion will have a negligible ‘military’ impact but serious economic consequences.

The time has long passed for an end to these attacks, if they ever should have happened in the first place. I don’t pretend that Derry doesn’t have problems; there are many, endemic unemployment being the most pressing. But bombings won’t solve them. Clever politics will.

We, as Derry people, need to send out a message – to the bombers and to the world – that attacks like this morning’s are not done in our name. Ours is a great city, a friendly city; we have much to offer, given half a chance. Support us as we try to build a better future for all our citizens – young and old, of all traditions, of all religions and none.

I am delighted to see that Sunday’s Walled City Marathon is expected to start, as planned, at the Everglades Hotel. That would be a fitting response to those who damage our reputation and jeopardise our future. The task of building that better future is itself a marathon. It starts here. It starts now.

And some advice for the bombers: not in my name.


Thursday, 24 April 2014

Spoilt for Choice

My friend and occasional colleague, Alex Kane, makes an interesting contribution to a debate which is exercising the minds of more and more potential electors at the moment: whether or not to vote in next month’s elections.

Alex has already decided: he won’t. He sees no point. He doesn’t believe that casting his vote in the local government and European parliament polls would make any difference and he’s not prepared to endorse what he calls “the travesty that passes itself off as government here”.

That is his right and his choice. But it is a fairly bleak pronouncement on the state of politics here. I can almost imagine Alex donning a black cap before penning his judgement.

I, on the other hand, will exercise my franchise in both next month’s contests. Voting is a privilege that people have fought for and won.

“Democracy”, Winston Churchill said, “is the worst form of government, except for all those others that have been tried.” Our assembly has been doing its utmost to live down to that expectation. No one, not even its fiercest advocate, would suggest that it has been a rip-roaring success. Ripping – occasionally; roaring – frequently; but successful? Hardly. Its mere survival is often cited as its greatest achievement.

But, like it or loathe it, it is all we have. And using our votes – even by spoiling them – is the only democratic recourse left for people who want to bring about change. (They also, of course, have the option of standing as candidates, as I myself did unsuccessfully in 2010, although few will do so.)

Alex is correct to state that there are many people who yearn for something more from our politicians. The ‘bread and butter’ part is easy; we all want more job creation, greater prosperity, improved health care, quality education, more effective services and better infrastructure.

It’s trickier, though, when we consider the constitutional issue. For some a united Ireland is the ultimate goal; for others that is anathema. And it becomes more complicated when we toss in related matters like the past, parades, flags and emblems – issues that will have seasoned envoys hurrying to catch the first plane out of here. They, at least, have that option.     

For many of us who have to stay, there’s the faint hope that something better might be in the offing. Alex argues that change might come about “when the Assembly, and councils and MPs are clearly seen not to represent a majority of the electorate”.

If – as Alex speculates might be the case – more than half the electorate decide not to vote, that would be a crushing indictment of the parties here. It would, he suggests, weaken the parties, strip them of authority and undermine their claim to speak on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland. But he’s wrong to think that the parties – certainly the bigger ones – would be weakened or stripped of their authority in such circumstances.

Voters staying at home would actually suit some parties, especially those with the best-organized political machines. And a low turn-out would be dismissed as “apathy”, with blame placed on members of the public who “couldn’t be bothered” to vote. I do not believe that a low turn-out would change parties’ behaviour dramatically.

A spoilt vote is different. A spoilt vote is a statement. To get up off one’s backside, leave the telly, go to a polling station and cast a ballot cannot be dismissed as apathy. It delivers a more withering verdict on parties and candidates than abstaining, and is a much more effective protest.

I am certainly not advocating that people should spoil their votes. Every elector has the right to decide what to do with his or her ballot paper. If there are candidates or parties they like, or whose policies they admire, I urge voters to give them their support. The priority is to be counted.

For the whole electorate here, voting is a privilege and a right. For some it is a responsibility. In other parts of the world, though, it is only an aspiration.

A vote is precious. Use it.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Wheel of Fortune

Final preparations are being made to ‘the Derry Eye’, the big Ferris wheel which will briefly dominate the Ebrington skyline and offer a new perspective on the UK’s first city of culture. From Friday, for a £3 fee and from140 feet up, the less faint-hearted will get an exhilarating view of one of the most historic cities in Ireland. (You can, by the way, get a similarly stunning view for free, on terra firma, at nearby Gobnascale).

The Giant Wheel will no doubt be a big draw for locals and visitors alike, but one wonders whether it is an attraction or a distraction. The same site hosted a circus recently and last Christmas it was home to a skating rink. As the ancient Roman empire declined, the satirist, Juvenal, observed that ‘panem et circenses’ – bread and circuses – were the last remaining aspirations of a once great population. Has Derry embarked on a similar path?

It is ironic that the Giant Wheel is being erected on a site managed by Ilex – the urban regeneration company aiming to deliver the “best regeneration any city on these islands has ever seen”. Ilex deserves some praise for Derry’s physical renewal but its economic impact – in admittedly challenging times – has been far less obvious.

April’s new unemployment statistics brought further evidence of how badly Derry lags behind the rest of Northern Ireland. The number claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance in the Strand ward finally crashed through the 20% barrier. A frightening 20.1% of its working age population are now ‘signing on’. The Diamond follows close on its tail – at 19.1%.

Derry has five of the top seven highest claimant rates for council wards. The claimant count for the council area as a whole is 8.4% – well above the Northern Ireland average of 4.9% and far ahead of Northern Ireland’s lowest, Castlereagh (2.9%). Factor in an inactivity rate well above the Northern Ireland average and we are witnessing a deepening economic crisis. Yet the talk almost everywhere else, it seems, is of “recovery”.

Even allowing for the redundancies announced in Belfast on Tuesday, it was still a good day for the city. The software company, Vello Systems, confirmed that 15 jobs were to go, but the IT firm, Novosco, revealed that it was creating 50 new posts at its offices in the Belfast Science Park – a net gain for the city of almost three dozen high value jobs. It would be churlish to begrudge them.

On the very same day, though, there was more bad news for Derry. While Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster – looking radiant in pink – beamed proudly on a tour of Novosco’s offices at Queen’s Island, staff at two workplaces in the second city were bracing themselves for the worst. Nine posts are going at City of Derry Airport (how’s that for a vote of confidence in the region’s economic future?) and another 20 are in danger at the Lough Swilly bus company.

I would love to take our MLAs – all 108 of them – cram them into the Giant Wheel’s pods, and make them spin round and round until they realise their duty to the people living in the streets below. It would provide welcome respite from the current grind of canvassing and, in any case, they seem to enjoy going round in circles. They’re certainly comfortable surviving in their own wee bubbles, cut off from the rest of the world.

The local councillor who was attacked by a dog while canvassing this week should get used to the experience. It’ll be surprising if more politicians aren’t savaged on doorsteps over the next month or so. Cave canem. Beware of the dog. And beware of the voter.