The latest Political OD podcast was recorded before the widespread calls for the resignation of the PSNI’s Chief Constable, following the usual pass the buck to the PPS which then had to consider a base of evidence that could be described as less than slam-dunk to secure a conviction. Morally, publicly, reprehensible as Sinn Fein actions were at the Storey funeral the PPS could only work with the files before it.
The story being built around the Storey funeral suggests ‘everyone’ is confused on both law and responsibilities, including those who wrote the law and those who might be expected to uphold the law. The public does not share that ambiguity in respect of what happened at that funeral.
All this within a year after the first Covid lockdown, and notably just over a year of New Decade “New” Approach. The relationships between the Parties making up the Northern Ireland Executive seem to be little better than 2017 (when the Assembly last collapsed). The ability of our institutions to address anything much with a degree of competence seems, at best, little improved on earlier incarnations.
Devolution is not delivering. Is this institutional, or simply that those at the head lack the competence/experience/imagination? By way of example, the further delay to the York Street Interchange infrastructure project – £140 million allocated in 2017 – because of ‘place making’ has the public rolling its eyes. It is a motorway junction causing untold travel misery for commuters and delays for businesses. We don’t need to ‘make’ a place, we need to make a start!
The public is being played for a fool. Either Stormont steps up, or it needs to step out of the way. Honestly, between 2017 and 2020 most people happily got on with their lives and had Stormont not been resuscitated in early 2020 few believe we would be in a worse place today. Next time the Assembly collapses, let’s make sure a DNR is in place.
The recent UK Budget provided small comfort to small businesses in excluding many from the proposed corporation tax increases.
In Northern Ireland that was indeed small comfort to many small businesses. They are doubly troubled. Burdened by the NI Protocol and supply issues that impact directly on competitiveness within the UK internal market, and battered by the indecision of the Northern Ireland Executive’s Covid Roadmap that is long on words, short on anything that much informs anyone.
“Can’t have people in complete darkness as to what comes next,” declared the Health Minister (Nolan Live, 3 March). The NI Exec seems not have found the light switch. The small incremental easements, for which the population is to be grateful no doubt, is hard to accept because there is little explanation as to why the information being used by the NI Health Department is so different from SAGE, and what Matt Hancock gets across his desk, to provide such an incoherent and unjustifiable extension of lockdown restrictions.
For small businesses lack of dates, targets or hope of opening anytime soon is an added blow at a time when the NI Protocol is proving to be a massive headache to sustaining business competitiveness within the UK and customer service locally – “Eight days for carrots to get to Belfast”.
Over on Think Scotland the impact of the NI Protocol is explained in more detail, but worth repeating a number of examples of how this is affecting three very different businesses:
ONE: A small haulier, employing just 15 people in the Belfast docks area is concerned that it lacks the resources to support customers, with large hauliers employing teams of people to do nothing other than input data into the systems.
TWO: A General Store in a small market town sources many items from GB. The store has successfully moved online. The business has two major challenges. Many of the sources of GB product have decided that the hassle of wading through the new rules is not worth the effort and have declined to provide goods to Northern Ireland. Those that have persisted with sending goods to Northern Ireland have increased cost to cover both time and effort spent in facilitating sales and delivery. For the store, there has been greater time spent trying to find alternative sources of goods – often at greater cost – but the range available to customers has declined and the cost increased. That is probably true of any local competitor to the store owner. The greatest impact, however, has been online, where reduced range and greater costs means the NI store has found itself to be uncompetitive with GB retailers online who do not have to bear the same challenges.
THREE: A local distributor for a sports goods business based on the South coast of England notes that his business is seasonal, low volume, though high value. After two months wading through the process to try to register as ‘goods not at risk’ (of entering the EU Single Market) he has discovered the requirement, monthly for ‘Supplementary Declarations’ . These seem incredibly complex for such a small and discrete business.
These are businesses that represent jobs, people, livelihoods that are invisible to policy makers and politicians. Hidden from the consumer because while we are in lockdown the supermarkets are all we see, the plight of small businesses including much of hospitality is barely mentioned at Stormont press events.
What happens when small businesses are expected to emerge from lockdown?
How many will simply give up?
How many will try to remain open, only to be overwhelmed by the challenges of the Protocol, accumulated lockdown debts, and a shrinking high street that means much reduced footfall?
That matters a lot in Northern Ireland; an SME dominated economy with 80% of NI private sector employment in SMEs (compared with under 60% for the UK). The small acorns that represent present economy and future growth are being smothered by inadequate political leadership on the NI Protocol and an incoherent disassembled response to Covid.
The PoliticalOD podcast is available on Podbean, as well as being available for download/subscription from Apple, Spotify and most other regular services…
The Protocol was always intended, as the backstop was before that, to tie the UK to a relationship dominated by the EU.
The tensions in NI with respect to the operation of the Protocol will only intensify while the UK Government resists the EU in efforts to lasso the UK back into the subservient relationship.
The (almost) triggering of Article 16 at the end of January showed how little the EU cared, not even with a passing thought, for the Good Friday Agreement or for its ever faithful member of the EU27 the Republic of Ireland.
Not hard to understand how those who demanded the NI Protocol be ‘implemented rigourously’ to assure NI’s Special relationship should demand a UK/EU SPS agreement to soften the Protocol; just like Switzerland? What that means, in essence, is more Europe. A step towards a sequence of agreements that would in effect take the UK ever closer back towards Brussels.
There is a lot of focus on the legalities rather than the actual level of ‘harm’ as EU would see it. Little proportionality in respect of actual ‘risk’ to SM and an absolutist approach that has nothing to offer the NI consumer or small business just trying to make ends meet. https://t.co/oRryuG8Jen
The podcast at the top of the page discusses how the Protocol was never about the Good Friday Agreement, or ‘best of both worlds’ but a desire for the EU to create a Trojan horse to be a thorn in the UK’s side , and by a Conservative leader desperate to move out of the Brexit mess he was bequeathed by the previous Prime Minister.
There is no doubt the EU believes anything entering Northern Ireland is a risk to the Single Market – a absolutist legal hold – a M&S ready meal could bring down the German economy in one thoughtless purchase at Sprucefield.
Risk, however, is relative. That idea needs to gain a lot more currency to break through what seems at present to be an impasse.
Not that the idea of absolutism is too far from the thinking of the Northern Ireland Department of Health. Despite indications that the vaccination programme is already having a positive impact on the number of over 80 year old Inpatients, the Chief Medical Officer was reported to believe that restrictions would stay in place until 2022. If vaccines are to be of little impact on restrictions, what will see an end to the confinement that is increasingly frustrating and damaging to the economy and personal sanity.
The PoliticalOD podcast is available on Podbean as well as Google, Apple, Spotify, Amazon and a host of other places – basically most places you might usually download or listen to podcasts.
The final segment of this episode of the podcast with @3000Versts is insightful commentary from the Financial Times, that a United Ireland is imminent because there are posh East Belfast coffee shops. Who knew?
This coffee argument is weak AF. When the pandemic isn’t going on around us, where the actual f**k do they think unionists go for coffee? 👀 pic.twitter.com/kygmksvpHF
The remarkable ability to put apples and oranges together and calling it bowl of bananas is a communications trait that seems to be all too prevalent in public discourse, and perhaps the underlying theme of this Episode. The theatre of a disorganised riot becomes an ‘insurrection, while democracy is lauded within a cordon of tens of thousands of armed troops. Lockdown is the only policy to ‘protect the NHS’, as if there was no alternative, and ‘freedom’ must be sacrificed for an institution of state? Slightly longer than usual, for big topics.
It is increasingly difficult to tell truths from reality; carefully crafted facts from fiction. Expert opinion is often just that; opinion based on estimates, extrapolations and best guesses. These are often made within a framework that itself determines the explanation presented as ‘self-evident’ truths, that don’t last past confrontation with reality – not even by those on the same team?
Perhaps this is a pattern that has been developing longer than the Covid-19 circumstances, where big bold promises usually end up being less than billed, if they materialise at all.
For this final podcast of 2020 we hadn’t spent Christmas reading the 400+ pages of Trade Agreement with the 800+ pages of extras. Others had, and the general sense was that it served to ‘take back control’ insomuch as any Agreement has pluses and minuses. What many miss is that this is just the terms and conditions of trade. The UK had already left the EU on 31st December 2019. Whether there is anything lurking in the fine print we’ll have to wait and see.
On Radio 4 Today programme on Monday 28th December, David Davis MP mused that there was nothing obvious over which the EU could hold the UK to ransom. That was already done with the NI Protocol alongside the Withdrawal Agreement, and is likely to prove a future bone of contention.
An upside to this is that it suggests unionists should not just reconcile themselves to the Protocol – there will be material for an ongoing campaign against it. https://t.co/lGgLIdMIHR
The SDLP and Alliance MPs are probably voting against the Trade Agreement in the House of Commons because they remain in denial about the fact that the UK has left the EU already, and that the ‘special status’ they supported will not be quite as special as they imagined.
The DUP, however, are trying to make a virtue out of something something…. There is little coherence of consistency in its current approached to future trade arrangements UK, EU or anywhere. It has agreed to a ‘howl at the moon’ session in the Assembly this week (30th December) on the Trade Agreement which is the equivalent of any Northern Ireland Council condemning Donald Trump – no-one cares, few notice, but there are a few lines in the local papers. Move along now…
Shutting door after horse has bolted is hardly a winning strategy. Trade Agreement is what it is. There’s no ‘principle’ voting for/agst Trade Agreement. DUP has just approved dozens of EU regs giving meaning to Protocol at Stormont. Want to take a stand, that’s where it’d count. https://t.co/Pl9q6xNRQQ
That brings us back to Northern Ireland politics. Perhaps the most obvious #fail of this past year has been New Decade New Approach, the framing of which certainly took full advantage of the start of new decade to suggest something might change. It hasn’t.
Most striking this past year has been the destructive desire of Sinn Fein to operate truly as itself alone and sod everyone else.
‘Ms O’Neill’s moral leadership has been shattered not just by breaking the public health guidance, but by her continued refusal to accept that she did so and her insistence that “I will never apologise for attending the funeral of my friend”’ https://t.co/fqu9cCfKtB
Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill blocked “necessary” Covid-19 guidance from being released across NI and the rest of the UK – despite being advised by chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser to endorse it. My report in today’s Sunday Independent. https://t.co/2cwY0vwMPS
The end result is that few in Northern Ireland can tell you what level of ‘lockdown’ we’re in. Everything is being banked on a vaccine roll-out, which would need to be a whole lot better than this year’s flu vaccine distribution – despite promises of access to anyone over 50, try finding one outside of Belfast. Worst has been the outrageous failure to protect the most vulnerable in our society, in particular the Care Homes.
Part of that has been lack of accountability or transparency. There is no strategy or thinking, or change in a fast moving environment, to provide a safety blanket to cover our elderly and infirm. The Departmental Press Releases no longer note those from a Care Home environment who die in a hospital – and in an answer to a question by Jim Allister it would seem that the information on how many from Care Homes are hospital inpatients is ‘not currently available’.
We were told that testing of staff in Care Homes was going to be increased from fortnightly (amazing that was considered acceptable in the first instance) to weekly, and there was even a suggestion that the Executive was considering daily testing. What is the current testing protocol? Who knows? Who in the media is asking?
The failings of Stormont have been laid bare during a health crisis that is bigger than the crisis called by medics in 2019 or that of 2018 – or any previous health crisis, precipitated or exacerbated by the complete failure of Government to reform Northern Ireland’s health care provision (probably starting with a clear out of the Health Department. Reform cannot come soon enough and needs to be not just accelerated, but supercharged.
Supercharging brought the discussion to Donald Trump. While most media has focused on his apparently obsessive tweeting, we do discuss that almost un-noticed has been deep de-regulation that had supported economic growth (until Covid) and an international agenda that had seen the USA engaged in no new conflicts since 2016, a significant step towards reconciliation in the Middle East between Israel and Arab neighbours (not perfect, but right direction and more that anyone had achieved since Jimmy Carter), and a stable Korean peninsula or as stable as possible with Comrade Kim in charge.
There were two tangental aspects to that discussion.
While speaking about life as unreality Trump, Kim etc, @3000Versts was reminded of a documentary on the BBC iPlayer about a Danish North Korean Appreciation Society (part of an international movement, really) entitled The Mole. Well worth a watch. Which reminded @thedissenter of Comrade Detective. While in the podcast this is described as an original Romanian 1970s police show in the genre of Amercian cop shows of the period, it is in fact a clever parody released on Amazon in 2017. Real enough to feel authentic, while not. It’s confusing, more so for memory of that time, and of some characters from the Eastern Bloc, that made it seem all the more real.
Also on that day was news of an EU rush to sign an ‘investment agreement’ with China. If the EU thinks that China is a trustworthy trade partner and can be relied upon to respect the International Labour Organisation’s rules on forced labour then it is deluded – the lot of the Uighur Muslims is unlikely to improve any time soon. If the EU believes it has a partner that respects international norms or agreements, look at the increasing repression in Hong Kong since the blatant breach of its commitments under the Sino-British Joint Declaration that promised residents would continue to have rights to speech, press, assembly and religious belief, among others—at least until 2047.
Other than the remarkable science underlying the production of a range of vaccines in 2020, there are many aspects of 2020 that does not portend well for 2021.
The question is not whether or not there is a trade Agreement between the UK and EU in the first week of December. Rather it is a question of preparedness for either scenario.
This episode looks at the monumental scale of unpreparedness for any level of Trade Agreement, by just about everyone – it isn’t just the UK Govt struggling with the reality of it all. There has been some general media reporting on this in recent weeks, but print and broadcast media sometimes avoid specifics to save baffling the reader, listener, or viewer.
The Devil, however, is in the detail, and this episode explains the current hell into which hauliers are staring.
The point is made that this is not just about Northern Ireland and trade with the rest of the UK. The underlying software needed to make trade work smoothly post-transition, is for all trade with the EU.
It’s a shambles. Govt tell us what we have to do but not how to do it. How the IT systems that will make it work has only been shared with a small number of operators.
Most of us don’t know and that’s an absolute crisis with only 30 days to go. @RHARodMcKenzie@SkyNewspic.twitter.com/qtDXzvDUaR
Of course in the Withdrawal Agreement (and Protocol) Northern Ireland is for customs purposes within the UK Customs territory, we are told. Goods will move seamlessly, unfettered, we are told. The detail suggests otherwise.
The Protocol arrangements means the cost of doing business for Northern Ireland traders, the ability to complete as equals within the UK Internal Market, will be much reduced. Those added costs will also weaken competitiveness in other markets too, such as in the Republic of Ireland and rest of the EU. Best of both worlds? Hardly.
Worse, there is a whole different level of complexity for the smaller trader, that might in time be resolved by the tech wizards of the big multiples and major manufacturers well used to managing complex logistical processes. For now no-one has a close where or what will be required for the 1st January, and that is regardless of any trade agreement, because not matter the scale or nature of the agreement there is a bureaucrat in Brussels who will insist on the paperwork.
In the wake of Covid, NI business needs this debacle like a hole in the head.
In the final analysis the only certainty is that it will be the Northern Ireland consumer who will ultimately pay.
When the podcast below was recorded it felt like groundhog day, another moment in a long series of stories on repeat.
Once again renewable energy had hit the headlines. This time, because the funding is covered outside the Stormont budget, the schemes don’t seem to have managed the level of public interest and general outrage that RHI attracted.
Also in the news are voices expressing concern about the NI Protocol on Northern Ireland business (particularly retail) and on the consumer. Oddly these same voices supported Theresa May’s backstop, which entailed many of the same pitfalls and could have been far more damaging arguably. The issue of the outworking of the Protocol will be a major point on the next podcast as the deadline date for end of transition looms in less than two months.
Finally, in the outworking of the NI Executive response to Covid, policy implementation neither seems fully ‘thought-through’, nor is there much substance beyond the immediate headline number and sounds of panic from the Health Department. How can messaging be clear? Consequences?
As we are now almost out of the four-week period of tighter restrictions, which will end on 13th November, the same underlying fault-lines in the way in which decisions are being made is apparent. The general sense is that decisions are not being made on any particular science.
The NI Department of Health has this evening published its ‘evidence bank’ which presumably has been used by the Executive to inform its recent lockdown decision. It’s contents are absolutely shocking 1/6 https://t.co/pxKB7DFoXD
It isn’t obvious that there are any significant data sets and evaluations eminating from the Department of Health that might be relied upon.
Looking at the daily published NISRA data there are significant gaps in understanding what they mean, and little by way of explanation from the Department that assists public confidence in the numbers. The one big area in which there is a complete lack of transparency, beyond the appalling headline number, is the incidents of Covid outbreaks in the country’s Care Homes – as of 9 November twice the level of the first wave earlier this year. That needs a blog post all of its own.
More on that later. For now, another groundhog day.
Episode 16 looks at the destructive effect of ambiguity on effective messaging around two major aspects of policy – Brexit and Covid19. Also available on principle podcast services for subscription/download – quick links at end of post.
It is reasonable to presume that Brandon Lewis’s response to the ‘Urgent Question’ from Sir Bob Neill in the House of Commons was pre-prepared. It used a very specific phraseology, and an example of something done before was even on hand. It may not be a good example, but it was there and hardly an off-the-cuff recollection.
A planted question is a common means for governments to gain an opportunity to make a pre-prepared response. It is hard to believe this particular government would cue-up Sir Bob, viewed as an arch pro-EU lawyer, to ask a question on the EU. That the minister’s response was on hand does, however, raise a number of questions, not least “why”?
Four topics in the latest episode of Political OD, in conversation with @3000Versts episode, with the common thread of messaging running through each topic.
First mixed messaging of Covid in NI. At the end of last week the morning Nolan Show on BBC Radio Ulster entertained the listeners with the message of doom from the Health Minister on an uptick in positive tests for Covid-19. Without downplaying the seriousness of the pandemic is the unchanged message imbuing a sense of panic from the Health Minister what we need while the Education Minster is trying to reassure parents of the safety of young people attending school? Especially when at the start of this week we have the more measured approach from the Health Department:
Then there is the messaging on exam results which appears to have largely tripped up Education Ministers nationally and regionally. Perhaps more to do with a lack of political decision making in the mistaken believe that arms-length bodies somehow shift the blame of lack of political foresight onto bureaucrats? How did that work out?
Concluding the podcast is a discussion around the new publishing site Dissenting Voices which has launched with a look at the the current debate around ‘rewriting’ history, and whether that is actually a thing at all. Using the issue of Legacy in Northern Ireland the first paper on Dissenting Voices reviews the impact of recent history becoming what is described as a ‘Black Taxi tour’ of events, people and places; where mostly nationalist slogans have become received truth and accepted ‘narrative’ (story-telling) over and above established fact.
Bit longer than usual, big issues.
PS. A bit of “you heard it here first” with this mornings BBC report on infrastructure:
Northern Ireland Water has warned underfunding is creating a health, economic and environmental crisis. It says economic development has been curbed in 100 towns across Northern Ireland. Details on @BBCgmu before 0800. pic.twitter.com/uag3uRGe7a