Month: July 2020

‘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.

Not only does this appear to go against the greater collective responsibility that was to underpin the new Executive post New Decade New Approach, but the greatest critic of the change was one of the DUP’s more important internal advisers 2008-2017, explained in a Twitter thread:

— Richard Bullick (@RichardBullick1) July 15, 2020

On the latest episode of PoliticalOD we talk about this, and why this is being raised now while the new Executive is still trying to find its feet.

One of the thoughts explored is that it might make sense if the Ministers were to deal with the day to day and that might leave the Executive with the job to deal with the difficult strategic issues. On that point we talked in the previous thedissenter post on the failure to address fundamental strategic infrastructure that has placed a dampener on any prospect of significant future economic development – a electricity supply that is ‘insecure’ and a waste water treatment infrastructure that is at or near capacity.

The first issue on electricity supply doesn’t even get a mention in the New Decade New Approach document, and waste water gets at least a passing reference with:

The Executive will invest urgently in wastewater infrastructure which is at or nearing capacity in many places across Northern Ireland, including in Belfast, limiting growth.

That is at least one sentence more than appeared in the Programme for Government in 2016. However, fine words, though perhaps less fine if we recall that the New Decade New Approach document turns out not to have been costed or agreed with any commitment to funding from the British Government or any idea of how to finance the commitments as outlined.

For a change we finish the podcast talking about Russia, why the recent report doesn’t add much to the sum of human knowledge, and that for all the efforts in which the Russian State is said to have been engaged it seems to have delivered the sum total of diddly squat by way of improving Russian influence on UK public policy. Fact is Governments (China, Saudi Arabia, any Government including Germany and France) will have institutes, friendship organisations and business associations that could all be assigned with the notion that they are acting in State interests.

Some clearly are, but great care needs to be taken to distinguish the malign from the benign. That is what the UK Government needs to be doing. The Intelligence Committee report suggests it needs to be more pro-active in understanding what is happening close to home.


Talk of economic transformation impossible without dealing with the fundamentals.

World Technology Background.

In recent years I’ve been involved in business discussions around the technology and infrastructure of optical fibre – the foundation of broadband connection to homes and businesses across the country.

Too much of investment in fibre upgrade is piecemeal; an approach wholly inadequate towards making a step change that would transform the potential of a region such as Northern Ireland.

Recently I started to write a policy paper. I live close to the North Coast and wanted to initiate a discussion on investment at a strategic level, with a vision for a digital Causeway 2.0. This was inspired by being reminded that Coleraine was an entry point for the black fibre of Kelvin; the single fastest data transfer route between continental Europe and North America. Project Kevin allows data to cross the Atlantic in 0.066 of a second. There is a second similar link not far down the coast at Ballykelly.

The current definition of ‘superfast broadband’ within current Government ambitions is not that super, or fast; download speeds need only be at least 24 megabits per second (Mbps).

The next generation of digital entrepreneur and future business requirements need to have gigabit broadband capacity on hand and ready to use. This is already becoming a standard in South Korea. It is where the future will be in a connected world. The Kelvin links seemed to provide the catalyst for a Causeway 2.0 plan, a gigabit economy – a Silicon Coast.

If combined with new expansive Enterprise Zones, at Ballykelly and the Coleraine Campus of the University of Ulster, and with an aggressive marketing international marketing programme there was potential in the concept. City Deal and DCMS Local Full Fibre Network programmes offered the possibility of gignificant investment towards implementation.

What wasn’t anticipated in thinking about a gigabit fired Causeway 2.0 was the state of far more basic Northern Ireland infrastructure.

Northern Ireland’s electricity power supply is unstable and insecure, generally. A 2017 House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee Report lays out all the issues – and there are many. A taster by way of example: “Northern Ireland is anticipated to fall into a generation supply deficit in 2021. In order to invest, generators require long-term policy clarity from the NI Executive and a clearer idea of how they will be compensated through the new Integrated Single Electricity Market.” 

Specific to Causeway Coast & Glens, and more generally across the wider area including Derry City Council, is the inability to assure businesses that require stable and secure power supply, such as data centres and high-end users of data services, that Northern Ireland electricity infrastructure is guaranteed to meet their needs.

In an even worse state is the infrastructure of NI Water. From Londonderry to Ballycastle water treatment works are at, or near, capacity. Reports from those involved in housing and business development in the Limavady area are already being told they can’t proceed without new investment in water infrastructure. That is probably the case in towns across Northern Ireland if the last NI Water Annual Report (2018/19, page 34) is to be believed. A NI Water phrase is “drains before cranes” – talk about City Deals is all very well, but the full potential is unrealisable without the groundwork – investment in the infrastructure underlying construction and development.

We simply can’t imagine a local digital economy that would be competitive in a digital world when the basics – power and water – are in such poor shape. Indeed, we have to question any politician who talks about future economic development when the fundamentals simply aren’t being addressed; strategic decisions, essential to our future, are being ignored. No wonder economic development is piecemeal – we have limited capacity to do anything more.

Some might blame three years without Stormont for the failure to address these fundamentals of strategic infrastructure. Some might blame austerity. Some might blame the stop/go from 1998 to 2007. Some might blame the recent conflict that saw funds poured into just keeping the country afloat.

When all is said and done, politicians can point blame at many things in the past, but that is no excuse as to why these issues are not topping the priorities for attention now. At least there was a passing nod to investing in waste water services in the New Decade New Approach document – for which no funding was secured to deliver that launch towards a new Northern Ireland Executive.

Fundamental infrastructure improvement, the basics of water and electricity, is essential for any prosperous economic future – we can’t even start to imagine a digital future if we struggle on analog.

There are governance issues in how that investment is managed going forward – NI Water is probably incapable while a public sector one-year budget focused organisation. What we need to achieve secure and stable electricity supply is political clarity and regulatory authority working to a common long-term plan of what is required, and how to make that happen.

What started as an exercise in the imagining a gigabit future brought me back to the hard realities of the poor state of our basic infrastructure that we take too much for granted.

Instead of laughing at Boris’s bridge, or indulging the idea as having great merit, perhaps step one is banking the idea that infrastructure is essential and can be transformative. However, to imagine something transformative, we need to get address fundamentals. If there is to be investment in infrastructure, in Northern Ireland it needs to start with the basics.

Positive steps on Legacy

The Government’s approach to legacy as outlined by Secretary of State, The Rt. Hon. Brandon Lewis on 18th March was a positive step in addressing legacy issues in Northern Ireland. The House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has posed a number of questions on the Government’s most recent proposals and has held a series of sessions to gather evidence, as well as accepting a number of written submissions.

The original Stormont House Agreement proposals on ‘legacy’ excluded any review of decades of terrorist destruction and consequent trauma, removing context and trying to write past conduct as if present reality.


New Government. Same old approach.

Time will tell whether Micheal Martin is a new approach to relationships with the UK generally and Unionism in particular. He’d struggle to be worse than the Leo & Simon show.

There is a long on detail short on substance Programme for Government that has been agreed between the three Coalition Partners in Dublin, but time will tell if that is the basis of stability or a huge fallout in due course. The Greens are the newbies, with it often forgotten that there has been a relationship between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail for the past few years with Fianna Fail providing Confidence & Supply to Leo’s Government.

We explore what the new Government might mean for relationships North/South and East/West, but posturing on the EU/UK negotiations on Brexit is over. Ireland is just one of 27 and it has most to lose.

Of course the three Party coalition means that Sinn Fein become the Official Opposition in Dublin. Perhaps ‘opposition’ is what it does best as it is making a total mess of its role a principal (mandatory) coalition partner in Belfast, particularly with its performance in Belfast this past week around the funeral of dead terrorist Bobby Storey.

It is not as if there aren’t big issues to address within Government. Stories this past week on the Charity Commission and LandWeb have echoes of RHI, and raises issues of whether the public sector is capable of reform or just not fit for purpose. Given the state of the relationships within the Parties at Stormont at this point in time, is there any interest or imagination to bring in the scale of reform that is clearly required.

This week MLAs voted to take charge of their own expense regime. What could possibly go wrong?

Discussing all of this with @3000Versts