Category: Dissenting

Unpicking reality.

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.

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…

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.

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.

One the best description of the Trump Presidency, that of high camp, in a piece for This Week by  Matthew Walther @matthewwalther. Matthew wasn’t the first to have raised that interpretation of Trump as President, but seems to have encapsulated the notion best. Trump is the first camp President by Drew Goins @drewlgoins appeared in the Washington Post in 2019, and How Trump Hi-jacked Camp by Spencer Kornhaber @skornhaber for The Atlantic was a month earlier in 2020. 

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.

Finally some words on China. If we started the podcast on Covid it seemed appropriate to end talking about China, where it all started. We recorded the podcast on the day when news arrived of a Chinese journalist jailed for four years for having been one of the first to write about the China virus. Zhang Zhan was convicted of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” a charge that is often used against dissidents and other critics of the government.

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.

On that note, Happy New Year.

 

 

Borderline ClusterF#£€!

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.

On CapX the broad shape of what the British Government is trying desperately to avoid calling a border is emerging, and the contradictions between intent, policy and implementation laid bare. This is the article mentioned in the podcast.

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.

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.

Groundhog Days.

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.

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.

 

Was Government messaging wrong, or just rubbish?

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”?

Read more… »

All in the message; future, present, past

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:

A health service source said peaks and troughs in the figures are “not unexpected” and demonstrate that Northern Ireland’s Test Trace Protect system is working efficiently.

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?

Moving from matters of day to day Government we looked at the recent article by @3000Versts in the News Letter on what is needed to support a positive message for the Union. We discuss the three basic points he suggests as guidelines for thought and action going forward;

1. to strengthen the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. And to maintain and consolidate Northern Ireland’s place in the UK.

2. To ensure that Northern Ireland plays as full a role as possible in the social, political and economic life of the (British) nation.

3. To encourage positive relationships with our neighbours across the island of Ireland. And to make Northern Ireland a happy and prosperous home for people of all backgrounds.

That discussion is particularly important going into 2021 and consideration of events around the 100th Anniversary of Northern Ireland becoming a distinct part of the United Kingdom as the 26 Counties of the Free State descended into civil war and separation from the Union. A second article by @3000Versts in the News Letter is useful to read alongside the first. 

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:

Just a reminder of the earlier post on thedissenter that points out the risk to economic development on a number of different issues awaiting political decisions…. and discussed on Political OD Episode 14 which is still available on download from Podbean, iTunes, Spotify etc.

 

 

History is complex. Legacy matters.

A newly published paper takes a look at the issue of ‘rewriting history’reformulating the past to present political agendas, and concludes that in respect of matters of Legacy in Northern Ireland this has resulted in a scandalous sanctioning of a narrative that ignores the entire purpose of which murder and bombing was a part, but not the whole story.

The paper suggests that the issue of the moment is not that ‘history’ is being ‘rewritten’. It is that the past (the recent past a nebulous idea of ‘memory’, the distant past a story of ‘oppression’) is being recruited to serve an agenda and historical thinking dismissed if it prevents one – and only one – moralising political whippet winning the race and becoming the undisputed champion.

Read more… »

‘big picture’ and politicking

Yes to infrastructure, but foundations first before grand schemes…

In recent days the News Letter has picked up on a small piece of legislation being rushed through the Northern Ireland Assembly. The bit that has peaked interest is what seems a modest change that will have the effect of placing more power in the hands of Ministers to take action unilaterally, without reference to the Executive.

Read more… »

Health status, Executive stasis, and Boris’s strategic manoeuvres on Brexit.

Despite many ‘Reports’ on Health reform (2011, 2014, 2016) Northern Ireland has seen little critical or  cultural change in frontline delivery of services. While the easy option for politicians is to demand and even offer more money, the current situation has arisen because of budgetary decisions taken in 2014. If it was pay or XX in 2014 it will still be pay or XX in 2019. Though our politicians are reluctant to talk about XX.

While it might seen that a new Executive is a possibility in the New Year, there doesn’t appear to be any public confidence that an Executive would have the will (or ability) to undertake difficult decisions that will be required on Health, or any of the other issues piled up on Ministerial in-trays. Last time there were major and difficult decisions to be made, Sinn Fein insisted they be sent back to Westminster.

It is Welfare Reform and the consequential impact on welfare recipients that might mean Sinn Fein needs an Assembly far more than any other Party. Yet despite the pressures on Sinn Fein there is a worrying trend in Stormont “negotiations” that enough is agreed to keep the show on the road while setting the path for the next crisis. Everyone does everything to keep Sinn Fein on board, while it does everything it can to wreck the train.

Finally, Boris’s plans for trade arrangements between GB and NI are an enigma – somewhere between what people read in the Withdrawal Agreement pages and believe to be likely, and then Boris’s view that that is all tosh. No idea, and all to some extent subject to what is decided between now and probably July in respect of a trade agreement between the UK and EU. With NI inside the UK customs union (the major difference between backstop and frontstop) there has been a shift in the dynamic of negotiation that isn’t much discussed.

All this in a handy 20 minutes or so, on this latest PoliticalOD podcast.

Back in the New Year. Have a great break. Merry Christmas.