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Elected Mayors would cause division in NI

May 2, 2012

I was delighted to appear on BBC Radio Ulster Talkback to discuss the issue of elected Mayors.

Although it has its moments of controversy, our particular system of rotating, civic mayors has generally been a chink of democratic light even during our darkest days. People of all backgrounds across all districts have, usually at least, been able to feel represented by their first citizen at least occasionally. Indeed, it could be argued that the system has encouraged some to reach out – such as Alex Maskey laying a wreath at the cenotaph or Ian Stevenson attending a Hurling final. It is important that we do not lose this with RPA.

Elected Mayors would, essentially, be a return to majority rule and would play out carve up in Northern Ireland – with districts becoming clearly “Unionist” or “Nationalist” all the time (even if the minority were, say, 40%). This is because they bring with them a degree of executive power (otherwise there isn’t any point in having them) which puts a lot of control into a single person’s hands. The nature of our divided society is that that person would not even seriously attempt to be representative of the whole district. Power sharing would simply cease to exist – a reversal of all the lessons learned over the past 30-40 years. I have to say I find the Green Party’s stated enthusiasm for this reversal at best naive and at worst outright dangerous.

It is questionable whether Elected Mayors are really a good idea other than in the largest cities. They are essentially an importation of the American Presidential system into the British (and indeed Irish) Parliamentary model – an immediate clash. In a true world city like London I think the system works well, as the whole metropolis needs a figurehead and a decision maker; however, elsewhere the jury is out. Besides, do we really have a spare £60,000 in the pot from the ratepayers of your average small town to pay an Executive Mayor? Do we really want still more elections?

In the end, I cannot help but think the whole debate misses the point.


Dunmurry High School closure an act of sabotage

April 25, 2012

I accept the need for more efficient public services and thus, in some cases, for school closures and such like. However, I cannot help but think that the closure of Dunmurry High School was nothing to do with efficiency and everything to do with pure, partisan and sectarian politics – an act of sabotage.

We may remember, first of all, that school “mergers” in the area have been going on for years, and the nearby Balmoral High School closed only four years ago. Pupils who would have gone there instead went to Dunmurry – which will now close. What hope is there for them? What does it say to them about the importance of education? What does it say to them about how the State cares?

The closure of Dunmurry High School then became a self-fulfilling prophesy. It was announced that it would be looked at; parents feared the worst and many acted accordingly and withdrew children; thus the school closed. Many of those remaining were only not withdrawn because other schools were allegedly “at capacity” – yet now places seem magically to have been found. In an area of most obvious educational underachievement, the Department has mishandled the whole issue horribly.

For all Sinn Fein’s talk of tackling underachievement and specifying Protestant males as the most likely to underachieve, their actions tell us what they really think of it all. School after school is closing (or “merging”) precisely where the underachievement is most obvious – in other words, precisely where the investment needs to be put in, not taken out! We may recall that the next time they talk about it – when it comes to doing something about it, particularly in the State sector, the real facts are they couldn’t give a damn.

Employment is another country for too many

April 22, 2012

I was delighted to be asked to participate on a panel to discuss Educational Underachievement recently, and I noted the issue was prominent even in this weekend’s French Presidential Elections. Most specifically, the issue of the apparent lack of employment for people to be educated for was a priority.

I am very much involved on a daily basis at the front line of working with people – particularly but not exclusively young men – to turn their lives around, most obviously in terms of education. One of the biggest challenges there is to know what type of education to aim for – what jobs will be available at the end of it?

This is not just an issue of the quantity of jobs, but rather the quality. We can work hard to bring high-value jobs to Belfast – and so we should – but the focus on that is leaving a lot of people afraid that there will be no other jobs available. It is true that high-value jobs would, typically, bring with them other jobs (most obviously in service, in retail, even perhaps in leisure), but there seems very little focus on ensuring this is the case and on persuading people in marginalised communities that it is therefore worth striving for employment.

The simple fact is for an increasing number in the next generation, there is a risk that employment will become an entirely foreign concept, with no one apparently intent on ensuring opportunities exist for people of varying educational levels. In other words, to tackle educational underachievement we need to look at employment patterns and how we create wealth and jobs to persuade people that education is something worth having.

UK defence capability must be for what is necessary, not optional extras

April 2, 2012

I watched the end of Max Hastings’ programme on the legacy of the Falklands War last night. I do not share his expertise on the subject by any means, but I was fully convinced by his conclusions.

Like him, I am a supporter of ‘Coming Home Parades‘, specifically on the grounds that the spirit of sacrifice of young men we send out to fight in the name of our country should be recognised. Endorsing their undoubted courage is different from endorsing the cause for which they have been sent, which in the 21st century has become increasingly questionable.

What is really striking about the Falklands War is the clear-cut cause for which it was fought – what we in Northern Ireland might call “the principle of consent”. Even those who do not believe in that cause (who, logically, cannot be great in number in Northern Ireland since the same principle underpins the 1998 Agreement) will at least see that it is clear cut.

What is the case in Afghanistan? I can begin to figure it out – underlying it is the notion that terrorist training camps exist there and need to be stopped from operating to anything like the capacity which saw such terrible destruction in New York, Madrid, London and elsewhere. However, it certainly is not clear cut, particularly not in the 2010s.

As for Iraq, that one I never understood. The theory – that mad tyrants should be overthrown – is no doubt attractive, but we simply do not have the capacity to do that every time it happens to he the case (hence our lack of interest in sending soldiers to Zimbabwe, for example, despite the more obvious recent UK link). Hastings used the term “optional” to describe such conflicts, and made the case that as a declining power the UK does not have, and indeed should not have, the military capacity for such “optional” wars (before you even enter the debate about their legality and so on).

Over 400 UK troops have now been lost in Afghanistan and the sad reality, for which the Falklands War itself provides ample tragic evidence, is that we may expect to lose that number again once they are home (in young soldiers who never recover from what they have seen or experienced). It is easy to be wise after the event, but was that sacrifice worth paying? Do we know for what those young men were paying it?

The UK should be equipped for necessary wars, but it can no longer afford to be for optional ones.


Who is responsible for PfG’s impractical targets?

March 18, 2012

Much has been made about how the Programme for Government sets out apparently easy targets – such as bringing a golf tournament to Northern Ireland that, behind the scenes, had already been secured.

However, my bigger concern on re-reading the final document is how many targets are utterly impractical.

Take the various jobs targets, for example. The only jobs a ‘government’ can actually create are in the public sector. The reductions in public spending mean, inevitably, that there are going to be fewer of those, not more. So how can the government set any practical target for jobs which will have to be created by the private sector?

To take a real-life example: neighbourhood renewal targets are based on the attainment of qualifications. Of course, the idea is that these qualifications will lead to jobs, and all the evidence suggests that, by and large, they greatly enhance job opportunities. However, you simply cannot set a reliable jobs target – there are too many other variables.

My real issue is not the targets themselves, however – perhaps some mathematical genius has done all the probability theorems and come up with a reliable figure! My real issue is accountability – who precisely is accountable for these targets?

I note several sources showing that 45% of targets in the last Programme for Government were missed – including pretty much all the economic ones. Who was accountable for this? If it is the fault of the ‘global slowdown’, where was the sensible economic advice upon which we could have based future projections taking account of likely turns of events globally?

Ultimately, this does again look like one rule for the ‘government’ and another for the rest of us. If we in the voluntary sector miss targets, we lose funding; if a businessperson misses targets, he is out of a job; if a referee at a major tournament misses targets, he is sent home. Does anyone know how that works in the public sector…?!

UUP fundamentally unleadable

March 11, 2012
I appeared on BBC Radio Ulster’s Evening Extra programme last Friday concerning the latest UUP leadership machinations.
It is not for me to comment on who is or is not a good candidate, but my point stands that the UUP fundamentally will not be led. It is implicit within the party culture.
The point is obvious: if you cannot lead the party with a whopping mandate and no opposition apparent at the start, then when will you ever be able to lead it? With such strong support, in fact Elliott shipped another 24,000 votes (almost a quarter) from an already supposedly disastrous position in the 17 constituencies in which UCUNF stood.
Of course, Tom Elliott may claim to be the honest man but he is not honest enough to be open about who supposedly “undermined” him. You would have thought that, if he were honest, he would be open about this to give his successor a chance. This creates another divided narrative – which will inevitably bring down the new Leader too, for he will be “Leader” in name only.

UUP Leadership… just saying…

March 9, 2012

This blog started just before the last UUP Leadership contest. Some of the post titles included:

– UUP needs unity and forward-thinking leadership

– UUP must think and feel for all of Northern Ireland

– UUP leader must appeal beyond UUP core

– UUP election strategy must include fair splitting of constituencies

There is a party which does all of that, in fact. Thankfully, I’m now a member of it!