Make your mind up time

It is make your mind up time for the Irish Republic.

Nothing new, but there has been hugely irresponsible and faintly histrionic noises coming out of Dublin, and Irish republican/nationalism generally, along with other voices (usual suspects), to the effect that Brexit means a return to violence in Northern Ireland. The only obvious return to the past is the use by the Republic’s politicians of events related to Northern Ireland as a distraction away from issues for which they are responsible, a deflection from the economic and political realities on its own doorstep.

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unintended consequences?

The Renewable Heat Association (RHANI) sought a legal injunction to stop the Department for the Economy publishing the names its members, about 500 in total.

Yesterday an interim injunction was overturned in respect of those companies who successfully applied to the RHI scheme. Individuals who applied would seem to be except from their names being published, for now.

There has been lots of comment on the judgement which has mostly focused on the publication of ‘names’, and how quickly those names might be published. However, in the BBC report of the judgement it was a small comment that caught eye of @thedissenter which seemed more important to the scheme of things.

The report on the case states:

The judge ruled that the application for RHI subsidy did not amount to a legally binding contract.

and;

He said the department had the right to vary the terms.

Why is that interesting? The argument that the RHI will cost £XXX million over 20 years rested on the premise that approval of the applications meant the creation of a legally binding, invariable contract. This judge would seem to disagree.

It might expected that legal actions on RHI are far from over. However, if the point the judge in this case goes unchallenged (improbable, but not to say he will be over-ruled on this point later) that moving forward:

  • the current 12 month fix by the Minister, Simon Hamilton, will hold, and that;
  • going forward the scheme can be altered to a controlled scheme within what funding is available from Westminster.

While seeking to protect the anonymity of its members the RHANI may well have sped up the process of revision to the grant payments of those who had RHI scheme approvals pre-2016, at considerable relief to the Northern Ireland budget.

Seems RHANI members may soon be facing the Law of Unintended Consequences.

And why are we having an election?

 

 

The Blame Game

First: Cover Your Ass.

First: Cover Your Ass.

Having been focused on travelling and/or working in the later half of 2016 the RHI story was in the background, though hard to miss the heat and noise around the issue.

At the start of 2017 it seemed that despite the heat and noise, there wasn’t much light on the subject. Nolan was on repeat. While plenty of titbits were being bandied about as if Moses had just revealed them himself, nothing seemed to be moving the story forward. The story of RHI had become left behind by the political story unraveling before us.

Worthwhile at this point to rewind. Helpfully, early last July the Northern Ireland Audit Office produced a report on the Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme. You can read the report here along with the summary contained in the accompanying press release.

If you want to know about the Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme then you really should read the NIAO report. It provides a timeline of events, the likely immediate impact on budget finances and a series of actions that had been agreed within the Department of Enterprise Trade and Investment in particular.

And it is worth listening to the short two minute item here from UTV(ITV) on the scheme, closing with the Minister, Simon Hamilton, confirming a pathway forward in respect of addressing the failures of the scheme. The NIAO summary of what was launched into the public arena back in July 2016, is easy to recognise:

The RHI scheme encouraged the installation of costly eco-friendly heating systems by paying a tariff per kilowatt of heat burned over a 20-year period. It was administered on behalf of Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) by the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets (OFGEM). Read more… »

The big, beautiful, election

IMG_3392

From the UK it might have been expected that on landing at Dulles just a few days before election day there would have been a palpable air of outright ferocity, divisiveness and hostilities arising from the mutually corrosive election campaigns of Clinton and Trump.

In the event, all was calm. As were the mostly Republican friends encountered over the next few days. There was no great enthusiasm for Trump as President, but generally agreement that it should be ‘anyone but Hillary’.

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Trumped

Trump / Clinton

This blog piece has been a little while in the making. Earlier, in March, the effort to try to better understand what was going on in the American Presidential Primaries prompted a trip to Washington DC. Probably overdue and making good, finally, on often made promises to visit, this was a chance to meet old friends and gain a first hand sense of what was going on.

Here was an opportunity to hear the views of people involved in education, lobbying, journalism, policy and politics. With the exception of the ex-pat journalist, of whom I would not presume to ask political affiliation, everyone else was a Republican. Anyway, morning TV included CNN, MSNBC, CBS, etc, as well as FOX. Balance restored.

At the time of the visit Trump was still in the end stage battle with Rubio and Cruz, and Clinton still had some months to go of a slugging match with Sanders before getting over the line with the delegate vote required.

So in a few short days, what sense could be made of American politics generally, Presidential primaries in particular?

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Where to start?

Unknown

Political life can be very dull and quite predictable. For a time commentary seemed all too often no more than a variation on a theme. Then, all at once….  These past few weeks in the UK have been anything but dull, or predictable.

Except it is usually that big event merely captures what has been happening in the background, perhaps unseen, or commented upon only in the margins.

Since the Tea Party became a much talked about though little understood political movement in the USA, politics has been changing – it may have been changing before, but that was an early manifestation of a wide-spectrum revolt against mainstream politic/ians. Yes that does ignore nationalist movements in Europe, because nationalism (or race) is so often the only thing that defines those movements. The Front National is a French “Nationalist Party”, but that simple descriptor ‘nationalist’ cannot be attached to the Tea Party.

For some time, no doubt,a voice has been making efforts to be heard. Echoes of that voice were occasionally noted, in passing, in the mainstream media. Without an event it was hard to pin down, and easy for mainstream politicians to ignore.

Some such as leftie journo Paul Mason did try to pin down the change to come. He was very excited by the prospect of revolution in Arab Spring and extrapolated this to “Twenty reason why it is kicking off everywhere” back in 2011. Yet more recently he seems to have been horrified that most of his reasoning is embedded in the campaigning that ultimately delivered Brexit – the shock perhaps that the revolution has not being secured by the young, engaged and educated, but by the poor, disengaged and abandoned ‘worker’ that today’s left appreciates only for the rhetorical value they lend to the ’cause’.

Making some sense of the shifting political sands over this past year has been a challenge. Hence, the absence of posting. Instead, a trip to the Washington DC in March 2016, and in early May a meeting with friends from across Europe (politicians, lawyers, lobbyists, bankers, business people; many no longer politically active, some who now live in North America). Most recently a trip to France, for the Thiepval Commemorative Service and the opportunity to speak casually with many who attended that event from across the UK, from all walks of life. And reading widely.

So in a series of posts, time to look at the USA, Europe and politics closer to home and some observations on some common threads. That will be the summer’s challenge. Making sense of it all.

Not telling.

shush

With the new larger Local Councils up and running there have been a number of stories in the local news about the cost of rebranding – new logos or, in this recent case, a new coat of arms.

There are many arguments for spending on rebranding to create an identity for a new body where it is about bringing a community together, good and bad. Very often this revolves around the final visual identity, the logo, and whether it is considered good or bad design.

Whatever the cost of the process this is voted on by Councillors and agreed by Councillors. So to not be prepared to reveal the cost where the spending was unanimously supported by all parties at Monday night’s Council meeting” seems a little odd and overly-secretive.

If Councillors they are prepared to defend the project on which the money was spent, Councillors should be equally prepared to reveal how much is cost. After all it is the local rate-payer, the taxpayer, who is funding the ceremonial trappings of Council. It is the taxpayer to whom the Councillors are accountable.

The Government is currently looking at Freedom of Information requests, and their cost. Here is a very small example where a Council is not being open, not being accountable. In the total budget it may not be a big item, but it tends to a reluctance of elected representatives to be very forthcoming about how much of our money they are spending and allowing the taxpayer, and voter, to make up their own mind on what is value for money and what is not.

The Government should not be looking at the cost of Freedom of Information requests, instead it should be working harder on more open and accountable government at all levels that reduce the need for FOI requests in the first instance.

Time enough…

breaking time

Back in January 2014 the DUP’s Trevor Clarke asked the Health Minister how much is annually paid to Trade Union officals. The Minister believed that within the Department and its arms length bodies the equivalent of 58 full time trade union officials were involved, at a total cost to the taxpayer estimated to be £1,840,540. The Minister said it was a spend being reviewed as he endeavoured to fund frontline services.

From information provided in an extensive FOI project the total cost to the taxpayer afforded to Trade Unions by the many levels of government administration in Northern Ireland is perhaps around £4.5 million. That doesn’t include agency or replacement in an essential frontline service. Nor is this a complete picture, with many public sector bodies reporting that they do not keep accurate records.

What arises from an overview of the data is that there is are no rules as to what constitutes facility time. There are two many estimates reported. Too often no records are kept at all. Facility time, it would seem, is what the Trade Unions say it is.

At a time when frontline services and budgets are under intense pressure, the taxpayer must ask if such a huge sum is justified, almost always increasing year on year. Surely, at the very least, a small service fee could be charged for collecting and forwarding members dues to the Union coffers. There is evidence of only three bodies doing this across the whole of the public sector – proving it is possible.

Trade Unions in Northern Ireland have a membership of around 242,000. Unions are not poor. In 2013 the total income of Unions based in Northern Ireland was £5.7million, spending £4.9million (an excess of £800,000). Income from Northern Ireland for all Unions (GB, NI, ROI) amounted to around £28.7 million. GB based Unions received £250 million more than they spent across the UK. Across these islands total Union income amounted to more than £1 billion. *

Facility time is justified if used responsibly. The scale of taxpayer contribution to Trade Union business in Northern suggests that closer monitoring is needed – you can’t make that judgement when records simply are not kept. A £4.5 million cost to the taxpayer also suggests that perhaps time is being spent beyond what is needed for that particular employer. Trade Unions can well afford to pay the cost of time spent on exclusively Union business.

Almost two years later it would be interesting to know how that Health Ministerial review was progressing.

 

* source NI Certification Officer for Trade Unions and Employers’ Associations Annual Report 2013-2014.