Thursday, 26 January 2012


An opinion piece I have in today's News Letter on the issue of Unionist Unity.

UNIONIST unity is a term guaranteed to produce Pavlovian and negative responses.

This is driven by the inability of some to realise how politics can move on. Many of the same commentators who complain about our politics happily use its truisms when it suits them to kill an idea they dislike.

With unionist unity they say it is a sectarian comfort blanket or worse a 21st century sectarian bogeyman. Others reject it as their politics is driven more by a visceral dislike of different parties than belief in a set of positive values.

They peddle conspiracy theories and play on the genuine loyalty of party activists to try and prevent discussion. The former is wrong and the latter offers nothing genuinely positive to anyone.

Unionism has two electoral challenges – falling turnout and the need to expand its electoral base beyond its traditional community (without alienating the existing base).

There is the political challenge of making Northern Ireland a beacon of political, social and economic success within the Union and regaining the global presence it once enjoyed. None of these tasks are easy.

There are also shifts in voter attitude going on among the electorate that unionism needs to be conscious of.

The present structures, relationships and attitudes among the unionist parties have been shaped by the peace process. Northern Ireland’s politics has begun to move on from the politics of the peace process.

As we look forward to the centenary of Northern Ireland in 2021, would focusing our efforts on these challenges and changes not produce greater benefits for the Union and unionism than finding arguments for the sake of them?

Unionist unity could be an opportunity to create something new and better. This is its litmus test. If after a thorough, intense and constructive debate the conclusion is that we can create something better then we should proceed.

If it doesn’t then we shouldn’t. The debate itself is something no unionist or anyone else in Northern Ireland should be fearful of.


Ballysally estate is where I grew up from age 5 and now has become the subject of the a BBC documentary.

Ballysally always had a 'bad' reputation often with little justification (and I must admit I'd never heard the term 'Ballyscally' before in my life until this programme).  This 'bad' needs seen through the prism of Coleraine which is a small Northern Ireland town.  It is not Compton, Brixton or the Falls or anything close to that.  Also as my sister would comment everywhere needs somewhere to look down upon and Ballysally happens to be the area chosen in Coleraine. 

However, if you grew up there it allowed you to appreciate the difference in perception and reality.  I had a normal Northern Ireland childhood with loving parents who both worked hard to give my sister and I a better life than they had. In terms of education the local primary school was a good one and started me on the road to educational success.  Many in the broader area would have perceived this as not the norm of the area but it was.

Watching the programme there was the usual trying to identify the streets or parts of the estate.  There was the personal sadness of seeing Philip, a former next door neighbour, who featured briefly at the start of the programme.  I witnessed his descent into alcoholism as a youth and it was sad to see 20 years later drink still has its hold on him.

As with all programing the producers have been trying to infuse it with some deeper meaning.  Whatever they may claim on Nolan this is not brave programming and neither is it about challenging politicians.  It has been done numerous times before and with all such programmes it runs the risk of becoming poverty porn.  The trailer seemed to indicate this is what it would be but the first programme managed to avoid that trap.  Yet the question remains will the avoid it in the remaining episodes?

The big test for me is whether the remaining episodes manage to capture the warmth and connectedness of the estate that has helped it live with and through the problems it has and some of its residents have.

Thursday, 19 January 2012


A cross-post with on the issue of the Scottish independence referendum.

The Unionist cause in Scotland fighting an independence referendum campaign should be doing so from a position of inherent strength. Support for the Union has consistently outpolled support for independence. In more recent years any spikes in the support for independence have been just that, unsustained for any significant period of time. Also the natural conservatism of voters about change is on Unionism’s side.

So that’s that then we can all go home?

Regrettably, no. These two factors appear to be their problem.

The firmness of support has led to a degree of complacency. It has contributed to an intellectual laziness among the advocates for the Union. The benefits and strengths of the Union are too often seen as sufficiently self-evident that they often remain unarticulated and there is an over-reliance on shillings and pence as the show-stopper. This then leads to far too much reliance on scare stories. The Unionist contribution to the debate so far in Scotland is at serious risk of making the SNP look like the good guys.

This combination of complacency and negativity means the Unionist cause has not developed a positive narrative. This means that in the battle to connect with the emotions of the voters it simply isn’t on the field. It could be possible to win without this but Unionism in Scotland would not be served well in the medium or long-term by a ‘dirty’ or ‘negative’ win. A ‘clean’ or ‘positive’ win is better at containing the separatist forces for longer. This is important as Salmond has created a second tier in his party more than capable of succeeding him. The past assumption of Salmond goes and the threat would disappear is no longer true.

Negativity does have a role in any campaign but has to be credible and based on a positive platform not what you offer voters for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

In the past the Unionist case could have been assured of a financial advantage but £2m of donations to the SNP have reduced this. Also the SNP has perfected maximising impact for spend as its masterful use of cheap database software and social media in the last Scottish election shows.

So what are the Unionism’s weaknesses?

The most fundamental weakness is the dire state of the Scottish Unionist parties, in particular Scottish Labour. The reasons for this will not be explored here other than to say they have no narrative, weak leadership and creaking organisations. Salmond has been blessed by his opposition. This is why the national leaderships have had to step in. However, this doesn’t solve the problem as ‘London’ stepping in can create as many new issues.

Beyond the opportunity to play a nationalistic card around their involvement the fact is that none of the national leaders have strong personal brands (either in Scotland or across the UK) and if the last election is anything to go by they aren’t very good at campaigns either. The Conservatives had everything going for them and couldn’t get to a majority, Labour produced a negative and confused campaign and the Liberal Democrats got lucky with the debates but couldn’t transform that into electoral growth. On a local note the ill-fated UCUNF is a warning of how badly things can go wrong when a campaign is riven by local v national tensions.

This means a new untainted Unionist campaigning organisation is essential. The Scottish Unionist political parties should have a role in its establishment but they cannot be allowed to be the dominant presence. The Unionist case needs a Scottish and non-party political voice that will sell a positive narrative. It should also realise that this will not be a media won campaign but on the doorsteps so they will have to develop a significant ground operation.

The political class will have to get Alex Salmond out of their collective heads. An obsession with Salmond leads to an emphasis on counter-strategy rather than a strategy, too negative a message and more likely to bolster Salmond’s popularity than harm it.

What role should other Unionists elsewhere play in the campaign?

Unionists from elsewhere in the UK can help with finance, expertise and personnel. However, it should allow the Scottish Unionist campaign to decide on what role they directly play in there. What is needed in the other parts of the United Kingdom is a complementary campaign to a positive Scottish Unionist narrative. The Scottish campaign sells the benefits of the Union our role should be to make it clear Scotland is wanted.

BTW here is the best piece I have read on the referendum campaign.

Thursday, 12 January 2012


In between rediscovering that my desk is made of wood rather than combined mounds of paper I have had time to check the locals and it appears Northern Ireland's journos just keep on giving.  Neither is there a continuing vendetta against the Irish News as today's offender is Liam Clarke, the political editor of the Belfast Telegraph.  He claims:

"David Ford is considering resigning as Justice Minister in response to Sinn Fein and DUP plans to scrap the Department of Education and Learning."

Such a move by Ford would seem premature on the basis no such department exists with perhaps John O'Dowd wondering why Ford is making such threats.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012


In my continuing losing battle for journalists to get basic facts right, today's offender is Simon Cunningham of the Irish News:  In a curious article based on a Tom Ekin letter about handshaking etiquette Cunningham claims:

"When Ian Paisley shook hands with Mary McAleese in 2007 it was seen as a defining moment in the peace process."

The famous political handshake of 2007 was surely between Bertie Ahern and Ian Paisley?

Quote of the day

David Ford on the Nolan show claimed Stephen Farry had:

"...rattled them [DUP and Sinn Fein] on teacher training"

With no offence intended to Stephen that one will help me through the day.


The Guardian has come a bit late to the party regarding how the boundary review will be of significant benefit to the Conservatives.  However, among it all is this little nugget:

"With the Conservatives' longstanding allies in Northern Ireland, the DUP, projected to have won seven seats, the Conservatives could have commanded a slim majority without having to enter into coalition with the Liberal Democrats."

David Cameron's attacks on the DUP and the entire UCUNF project seem to have slipped their Guardian's notice. However, one of the DUP messages in the 2010 election was the prospect of a hung parliament.  It did appear to have some juice with the voters. 

Monday, 9 January 2012


Northern Ireland's Councils are going through the final stages of the rating process with the decisions to be finalised.  With household budgets and business cash flows under pressure I thought I write a backgrounder to it from the perspective of the issues Belfast City Council is wrestling with.

The rates is made up of two elements the regional rate (55% of your bill) and the district rate (45% of your bill).  The regional rate has been frozen for the previous three years but the new budget settlement has meant this situation cannot continue.  Therefore what happens to the district rate becomes of more significance.  If ratepayers are to get some relief it will have to come from the district rate. 

In Belfast in 8 of the last 10 years the district rate has been raised above the rate of inflation.  This was during a period were the rates base of the city was increasing in 9 of those 10 years.  This year the rates base has remained stable in the city due to the work of BCC's Building Control section.  The upward pressures on the district rate are somewhat abated this year because of the pay freeze.  Wages account for about half of Council spending.  Therefore for the Council to do what it does next year that it did this year it will require little growth in the district rate.

However, this is were you run into the concept of prudential financial planning for Councils.  It argues strongly against the spiking of the rates so when setting it you have to consider future pressures.  Insetad of a 6% increase in one year better to have two years of 3%.  For example, future requirements around waste could have a significant impact on budgets but this has been planned for so  when they are introduced they will not force a large jump in the rates.  The most obvious known known on future expenditure pushing the district rate in an upward trajectory is wage costs.  The wage freeze will end with the strong possibility it will be above the inflation rate.   The counter to this is this is not an 'ordinary' year and should not be treated as such.

There is also what can be described as the hung for a sheep than a lamb argument.  People don't understand the distinction between the regional and district elements of the rates.  As Stormont will be raising their element Councillors will be getting complaints about rates rises. So they might as well increase their bit and get some revenue for the abuse as opposed to get the abuse with no revenue. This is a somewhat self-centred even selfish position, what people are going through is simply ignored by this logic.

The next argument for increasing the rate is to support a 'stimulus' or 'investment' package for Belfast, what one councillor called a 'Marshall Plan' for Belfast.  Leaving aside the incomprehension of what the Marshall plan was, a stimulus package is usually of two elements - tax cuts and increased borrowing.  However, a rates rise would be the opposite of the former.  Therefore, it has to be asked will the money raised by increasing taxes be better spent by council than our citizens in the next few years? 

There is the secondary question of when will the money be spent?  Rates rises could go into capital funds which may not be spent for a number of years, essentially lying in a bank account.  The Council has two capital funds, a Local fund and a City Investment fund.  The local fund is targetted at smaller scale projects at a community level (and much needed with DSD and NIHE budgets under significant pressure).  Quick spend should be more achiveable under the local fund.  The City Investment fund is to top up major capital projects for Belfast being developed by other organisations or public bodies.  The most recent examples of what this fund has contributed to are the Titanic signature project and the Lyric.  The Council cannot borrow for captial expenditure on properties it does not own so the only way it can raise money for this is through the rates.  Presently £3m a year is put into this Fund every year direct from the rates.   

In terms of its own capital expenditure the Council is not proposing cutting back on its pre-recession spending plans.  This will involve a doubling of the Council's debt levels to over £70m at a time that central government has increased the cost of local government borrowing.  Another project could potentially push this borrowing to over £80m.  In comparison central government is making double digit cuts to its capital programme.  Therefore, to claim the Council is being 'inert' without increasing expenditure is simply not true.
In a broader context all parties have supported rates relief for small businesses.  Will increases not negate some of the benefit of that scheme?  If parties accept small businesses then the logic leads you to the conclusion that families need relief as well? 

Thursday, 5 January 2012


Following on from IJP's argument about the local media and its need to improve, as well as investigation it would help if they got basic facts right.  According to the Irish News' political correspondent, Diana Rusk, the 2011 Belfast City Council result was:

"...a turning point in local government politics when a slump in the unionist vote saw the balance of power switch to Alliance."

Perhaps she was unaware of the 1997, 2001 and 2005 local government elections in Belfast.


Alasdair McDonnell's Irish News interview has gained much attention because of the comments on politicians' pay and pensions.  This has made Alasdair a punch bag for the radio talk shows and allowed internal enemies to come out and attack him.

However, the real problem with the interview is that it has no narrative for the SDLP, Northern Ireland or nationalism.  It listed a range of things he intended to do but they lacked a vision and a coherency.  No one doubts Alasdair's willingness to do work and that is reflected in what he said but activity is not strategy and all he offered in his interview was activity.