Month: July 2008

Gordon Britannia

Gordon Brown’s efforts to ‘defend the Union’ continue to define Britain in his own image, Gordon Britannia, much like the Blair rebranding of Cool Britannia. He will ultimately fail if his government continues to act in such a way as to undermine the very values he purports to defend.

The Prime Minister dismisses anti-unionists as ‘those who argue for Scottish Separatism’ or ‘English Votes for English laws’. He assumes that we must all agree what a threat these people must pose to the Union. But neither of these groups appear to have plans to bomb the City of London.

The Union is not under attack. Pragmatic Scots are more likely to wish to have their cake and eat it, while the Scottish National Party are certainly enjoying their cake at the expense of the strategic and tactical ineptitude of ‘opposition’ parties.The demand for English votes for English laws is a consequence of Labour’s largesse to its voting heartlands, which, despite the investment, remain the most unproductive regions of the UK.

The Prime Minister is right to laud the Union. Its most outstanding value is that Scots, Irish, English and Welsh, and all myriad of communities in Britain, need not be unhappy to be described as British while defining themselves also by religion, ethnicity or country of origin. This is certainly at the heart of Gordon Brown’s own instinctive sense of Britishness.

The problem for Brown lies in the lack of an agreed definition of ‘British’. It is reasonable to suggest Britishness it is an evolved and deep-rooted sense of freedom (from government or rude interference by others), fairness and tolerance (in a live and let live way) and fickleness (protective of personal space and defensive of encroachments, whether that be to territory or lifestyle). Against which we would have to rate Gordon Brown’s government generally as quite un-British – though he is for the most part only following were Blair first led.

It is not just the 42 day detention: it’s the poor woman sent back to Ghana to die. It may be right, but it’s not British. It’s not the need for anti-terrorist legislation; it’s that Labour’s legislation has been used by local authorities to spy on where you live and the school your child attends. It may be right, but extends beyond its purpose; it’s not British. While taxation is surely justified for education and health, the Government raiding the Lottery to pay for the Olympics smacks of a) the Dome b) taking from the poor to pay for vanity (the Dome again). It’s just not British.

Gordon Brown would do better in defending the Union by leading his Government with intellectual honesty. Policy delivery of universal application, rather than selective promotion of favoured groups or projects, would be a start. Showing greater concern for freedoms, fairness and diversity in the practical implementation of policy would underpin Britishness and regain much of what was lost under the Blair premiership.

The problem for Gordon Brown is that because he has defined Britain in his own image, it’s not an image that Britons want to share.

Review of Public Administration falls short

In the end it came down to “7, 11 or 15?” Not a choice between rugby ‘7’s, association football or the full union code, rather “how many councils?” At least the new Minister at the Department of the Environment Northern Ireland (DENI) has been spared a Review of Public Administration (RPA) every bit as tedious and uninspiring as its precursors.

When the most recent RPA was first mooted it was sold as the chance of a lifetime to correct the horrendous mess that constitutes the ‘public sector’ in Northern Ireland. With 11 government departments, over 100 quangos, how ever many Commissioners for this and that, and 26 local councils we would have a right to feel a tad over-administered – though poorly governed for all that.

And yet the ‘Executive’ review of public administration seems to have concentrated on the area that covers the least in terms of public expenditure – the councils. Still, it is to be guessed that civil servants hidden away in the depths of Education, Health, Planning and Roads will be breathing a collective sigh of relief. Not for them the trials of exposure to local accountability – the Assembly committees I hear you say? Try a yet another cold, dark, wet Monday night in front of 20 or so angry, though rather well informed, local Councillors.

Sadly for all the posturing, twisting and obfuscation of groups such as the NI Local Government Association, local government in this part of the world remains incredibly weak. The review announces that the 11 new councils will have ‘some parts of planning’; in the rest of the UK local councils are the ‘place shapers’. Here they will be given ‘local economic development and tourism’; activities they have been engaged in for over 20 years already. There is still talk of the mythical ‘power of wellbeing’; what power, whose wellbeing? Still, it will be a little more that the ‘3Bs’ – bins, bogs and burials?

Even after review, what passes for local government in Northern Ireland will hardly be unrecognisable to a Mancunian, a Londoner, a Glaswegian, or a New Yorker and, yes, even to a Dubliner.

So, why is it likely that this latest review is, ultimately, likely to deliver so little? Is it that the 50 or so Councillors/former Councillors who are now MLAs recognise the dangers in their erstwhile colleagues having increased powers? Or is it that the civil service want to keep things cosy in Belfast? Perhaps there is a bit of both involved. Mostly however, it is hard to find substantial gains for effectiveness or efficiency in public administration from this review. Gains, perhaps, but none amount to effective or efficient local government.

From a Unionist perspective, the configuration is the best possible available; there is a Unionist council west of the Bann (Limavady/Coleraine/Ballymoney/Moyle) and a Unionist council on the border (Armagh/Craigavon/Banbridge). It means the first election is the European challenge of 2009, which marginalises smaller parties and maximises the significant voting blocs, which suits both the DUP and Sinn Fein. For all Parties it maximises the number of councillors: a little something for everyone.

There’s the rub. If it really was about effective, efficient, value for money local services we wouldn’t have over 100 quangos, multiple education systems and enforced coalition government with a Ministry for all. We wouldn’t be focusing on how there is a little something for everyone – all gain and no pain means little deviation from the status quo.

The UK economy is currently hovering on the edge of significant slow-down and perhaps even recession. Public spending is forecast to rise to almost 40% of GDP – over 40% is the UK Treasury’s definition of failure and the trigger for corrective action. In Northern Ireland public spending accounts for over two-thirds of our GDP – what does that say about the economy of Northern Ireland? Public Sector funding in the Republic is below 40%. If Northern Ireland is to be competitive in a global world, Corporation Tax should not be slashed without a similar slash made to the ‘public service’.

Arlene Foster reviewed local councils within her Ministerial remit. If there had been a substantive and serious review of public administration in Northern Ireland, it would not have stopped at local councils.

Submitted by Ardmachian

Unionist Realignment

Many balk at the suggestion of a merger of the DUP and UUP into a single party. For most the single biggest issue was the ever present and ever divisive Ian Paisley. With Ian Paisley being the subject of a very internal coup, showing his weakness and irrelevance to the future, the two parties must now look seriously at the prospect of coming together. There are a number of reasons for this.

First, from the DUP perspective. Paisley was pushed. This can be said with some certainty because the reason behind the timing was so fundamentally flawed. How does the replacement of the ‘hard man’ of Ulster politics likely to save the DUP from Tradtiional Unionist Voice (TUV) led by ex-DUP Jim Allister MEP.

From a UUP perspective, hoping that voters will flood back to you because the others have arrived ten years too late is wishful thinking. There is nothing in the past year to make the electorate believe that voting UUP is a better bet – a better bet than what? Which is why a convergence of the two parties is almost inevitable.

The current signals from Sinn Fein indicate that it recognises the potential to be the largest party in any forthcoming election and taking the prized First Ministership. Sinn Fein has looked at the Dromore by-election and noted that where the DUP had previously swept the UUP off the board, the DUP did not achieve the vote it expected. They will have noted that the TUV took votes from both DUP and UUP. Which would suggest that in an election, the TUV would represent a significant minority voice and take a number of seat in the Assembly’s multimember constituency, PR election.

Widening the prespective, Sinn Fein anticipates that the failure of the Assembly to perform positively on any issue will impact much more negatively on Unionist parties than nationalist ones. They are probably right.

In recent months Sinn Fein has been markedly increasing its green rhetoric, and has been vociferous in blaming Unionists for lack of movement on issues close to the heart of its own constituency – reinforcing a victim mentality has always worked in the past.

A quiet summer will be more to do with tactics to convince Unionists of the safety in transfer of policing and justice than any sincere intention to resolve the parades issue.

Sinn Fein will most certainly not want to enter an election following Conor Murphy’s Ministry announcement of water charges – for which Sinn Fein will most certainly not be able to shift the blame. An election and Ministry reshuffle is about the only face-saving circumstance where Sinn Fein would allow itself to dump the disaster that is Catrina Ruane in Education.

There is every reason for Sinn Fein to see advantage in an election before the full term of this Assembly – sooner rather than later would no doubt be its preference.

For either the DUP or UUP to fail to perform as the largest party following an election would send Unionism into a tailspin of recrimination and self-doubt. Any groups emerging would be based on personality. The debate would focus on who has the biggest claim to be the leader of Unionism, when in fact no-one would be giving a lead at all.

Any suggestion that a DUP and UUP merger of some sort would provide a single Unionist Party is too late. Although the appeal of TUV is currently narrow and serves principally as a magnet for dissent, it has all the hallmarks of a credible political movement that will in time transform itself into a political force. There are now two Unionist groupings in Northern Ireland – those in the house and those without a key to the door, just yet.

In truth, there is now little political difference between the DUP and UUP, other than ego, personality, and history. With the departure of Ian Paisley there is no good reason to remain apart. Electorally, there is every good reason to join together.