Category Archives: Politics

Conflict of interest? Pull the other one Auntie

I was astonished to read this week in the Daily Mail that the BBC has ordered the news presenter George Alagiah to step down as patron of the Fairtrade Organisation, in case there is a conflict of interest.

Bizarrely, the Beeb seem to have only just noticed this risk as the presenter has been patron of the charity, which helps farmers in the developing world, for several years.

In a letter to Fairtrade explaining his resignation, Alagiah said that senior colleagues at the corporation “believe that Fairtrade represents a potential conflict of interest which could undermine my impartiality. In the many years that I have been your patron there has not been a single complaint (that I am aware of) to the BBC, so you can imagine how taken aback I was by the decision.”

We should not be surprised however. The BBC has also chosen to ignore the warnings of its own governing body, the BBC Trust, that Alan Sugar’s appointment as a government enterprise tsar risks a “greater than normal risk to the impartiality, integrity and independence of the BBC” because of his role in The Apprentice.

Photo by zawtowers (Flickr)

Photo by zawtowers (Flickr)

Lord Sugar may not be involved in making government policy, but he will be attending Cabinet meetings to advise on enterprise matters and will inevitably be involved in media appearances relating to The Apprentice in the run up to the general election, which is expected next June as a member of the incumbent administration.

Perhaps the difference is that George Alagiah is a mere news presenter, and one of many, whereas the former Surallan has become a national phenomenon because of his (admittedly enjoyable) antics in The Apprentice boardroom. But it is clear to me which of these three figures presents the clearer risk of a conflict of interest.

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Britain needs a Bord Snip

The details of the report by the Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes, better known by the rather witty moniker of An Bord Snip, are being absorbed by politicians and ordinary folk in Ireland. The figures are startling.

Snip_SnipThe group recommends 17,000 job cuts across the public sector, cuts in social welfare payments, the merger of state quangos and county councils, and the abolition of a whole government department. There can be no doubt that Ireland has had a tough time in the economic downturn with the collapse in the over-inflated housing market and the crunch in the financial sector.

The closure of schools and Garda stations will not be popular in rural areas and social welfare cuts are never going to be a vote winner. But despite these bitter pills and disagreements over exactly where the axe will fall, there is broad understanding for a re-engineering of public services in the republic.

The Irish seem to have stolen a lead on the British. Why can’t we have a Bord Snip?

Get together some leading economists, maybe one or two experienced senior civil servants (but just one or two) and let them have a look at the state of Britain’s finances. 

In fact, why not appoint the excellent Jeff Randall to our British Bord Snip? He has done most of the work already. The Daily Telegraph columnist came up with some ideas following Alastair Darling’s utterly forgettable Budget in April.

Stop welfare payments to wealthy families, scale back Labour’s misguided 50% university attendance targets, cull wasteful government consultants in the NHS, dimantle the complex tax credits system set up by Gordon Brown which is fraught with mistakes and fraudulent payments, and freeze public sector pay. These are some of his eminently sensible suggestions for how we can re-engineer our economy.

New JCAnd why not look to Canada? During the premiership of Jean Chrétien (pictured) a $42 billion deficit was eliminated, five consecutive budget surpluses were recorded, $36 billion in debt was paid down, and taxes were cut by $100 billion (cumulatively) over five years. A budget surplus! When was the last time we had one of those?

That example is going to be hard to beat, but we could at least give it a try. It won’t be easy, and it won’t be popular. But if the Canadians can do it, why can’t we?

A prime minister, a wafer, and a question of faith

They are calling it ‘Wafergate’, the allegation that Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper pocketed a communion wafer at the funeral mass of former governor general Roméo LeBlanc last week.

In video footage of the service the prime minister is shown approaching the priest, accepting the wafer and disappearing out of shot with it in his hand, prompting the accusation that he did not consume the wafer and has caused grave offence to Catholics, who believe that during mass the wafer is transformed into the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ.

StephenHarperchurch“He accepted it and consumed it,” said Harper’s spokesman at the G8 summit in Italy last week, and he was backed up by Noël Kinsella, the Speaker of the Senate and himself a Catholic.

“Sitting only a few seats behind him I had a full view of the proceedings,” Kinsella assured concerned Catholics, among them Monsignor Brian Henneberry of Saint John, New Brunswick. “It’s worse than a faux pas, it’s a scandal from the Catholic point of view,” he told the Saint John Telegraph-Journal.

This story is interesting from a local perspective in that the scandal is not that Harper, who is an evangelical Protestant, attended a Catholic mass, but that he merely slipped up on a matter of etiquette.

To his credit Harper (pictured) has kept his religious beliefs to himself, and it is not difficult to see why. Harper’s church, the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church, does not ordain women, strongly opposes abortion and divorce, condemns homosexuality as the most base of sins and believes those who aren’t born-again are “lost”.

Bruce Foster, head of policy studies at Mount Royal College in Calgary, Harper’s home town, said: “If Harper came out and said those who don’t know the Lord are ‘lost,’ are doomed, he’d be held up to ridicule.” 

Held up to ridicule in the same way perhaps as cabinet minister Stockwell Day, who was lampooned by journalists in the 2000 election for his creationist views.

“In a multicultural, diverse, relativistic country like Canada, that’s toxic stuff for most voters,” said Foster.

What a pity the same cannot be said of Northern Ireland.

Stormont is ignoring the economic actualité

As the debate over the economic crisis continues, public sector cuts are sharply in focus. The Conservatives have had the public sector in their sights for a while, but oddly David Cameron has decided to pick on one quango in particular, Ofcom, declaring that it will “cease to exist” as we know it under a Tory government.

In the Evening Standard Roy Greenslade argues that the Conservative leader has mistaken an overgrown and overreaching regulator for an absence of political leadership in media policy, while The Guardian’s Maggie Brown sympathises with Cameron and feels that the regulator has no business investigating (and criticising) pay-TV services such as Sky.

Northern Ireland also has too many quangos, but our First Minister cannot abolish them even if he wished to because our special status as a post-conflict zone requires us to have commissions galore to administer our collective recovery. The public sector in general is cause for great concern because for decades the policy seems to have been that the public sector should act as a job creation scheme, in the absence of growth in private business. This comfortable safety blanket is something that we still cling to, even after a decade of alleged peace and prosperity. There is the handy argument that the province will be shielded from the worst of the recession because so many in the population (32%) are employed in the public sector, but this misses the point.

Economies are about wealth creation, and public sector jobs do not create wealth. In fact, they do the opposite, in creating an ever-larger burden on the public purse for years to come because of sheltered salaries and pension agreements.

At least in Britain politicians are talking openly of cuts in public spending. This is something that has yet to be addressed at Stormont, but we should not be surprised. Our politicians seem to be genetically unable to digest the reality that cuts need to be considered and implemented, the sooner the better. A few weeks ago the reasonably diligent Regional Development Minister, Conor Murphy, announced proposals to defer water charges for a further three years, a truly head-in-the-sand proposal if ever there was one. 

Nobody wants to pay water charges, the same way as we would all rather not pay taxes. But somebody has to pay for it, and right now only two things are certain: Westminster can no longer afford it, or rather no longer feels it should have pay for it; and Stormont cannot afford it, at least under existing budget limits. The shyness for the economic actualité which exists in our political class should be cause alone for a public outcry. 

Newton Emerson captured our little big problem perfectly in The Sunday Times at the weekend:

“As Britain and Ireland brace themselves for the first real spending cuts in a generation, Northern Ireland is still living in a fiscal fantasy world…The prospect of having to implement cuts fills Stormont’s provincial politicians with horror…The near-guarantee of permanent office should have emboldened those parties to take difficult steps. Instead, it has turned the normal political contest for power into an endless exercise in dodging blame, claiming credit or just cynically undermining supposedly collective decisions.”

This approach to our budget problems is attributable to our ongoing experiment in consociational government, stuck with an administration severely limited in its financial powers, with no effective or official opposition, where all parties are in it together, afeard to speak out (and that’s assuming anyone would want to) in case the whole thing topples over. Again.

The problem is that, like Scotland, we have become too used to a limitless flow of money from the Treasury that coming off this thirty-year high will be extremely difficult and extremely messy. But at least Holyrood has a bit more fiscal authority than we do, and can continue to fund free healthcare for the elderly and all the rest while dreaming of one day liberating their North Sea oil revenues from the Sassenachs.

Speaking of Scotland, remember Ewan McGregor coming off heroin in Trainspotting, screaming in his bed as that demonic baby crawled towards him across the ceiling?

Now imagine Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness in bed (sorry Iris, just bear with me for a moment), screaming at each other in agony as Baby Osborne crawls closer and closer, waving his abacus furiously. Not a pretty thought, but that is just what it might come down to unless our elected representatives can kick the habit of a lifetime.

Who are today’s political misfits?

A misfit is defined as: “one who is unable to adjust to one’s environment or circumstances or is considered to be disturbingly different from others.”

The historian Dr Éamon Phoenix spoke about a number of ‘Ulster’s political misfits’ last night in a fascinating talk at Bangor library. He outlined the lives of forgotten figures from history such as Sir Denis Henry, a leading barrister of his day who became the first, and so far only, Member of Parliament who was a Catholic and a unionist.

There was R. J. Armour, a Presbyterian minister whose dissenting faith and anti-landlordism led to his conversion to Home Rule, sharing John Redmond’s vision of a self-governing Ireland within the Empire. He even organised a Home Rule rally in his native Ballymoney.

jack_whiteAnd another Presbyterian minister, the Reverend Dr  J. A. H. Irwin, who having never mentioned politics in the pulpit took leave from his congregation in Killead, County Antrim in the early 1920s, ostensibly on an extended holiday, to visit the United States on a speaking tour with none other than Éamon de Valera. The two men became good friends and regularly had tea together after Irwin became minister in Lucan, County Dublin, with Dev consulting him on the finer points of the 1937 constitution.

For me the most interesting figure in the talk was the charismatic Captain Jack White (pictured). The Whites were a family of modest landed stock from Broughshane and Jack, only son of the ‘hero of Ladysmith’ Field Marshal Sir George White VC, was assured of a solid career in the army, just like his father. He saw action in the Boer War as a young officer and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order rather by accident, “having, when taken prisoner, owing to mistaking advancing Boers for British troops, and stripped, escaped from custody and run six miles, warning Colonel de Lisle, and advancing with him to relief of Major Sladen’s force,” according to the citation.

After the war he resigned his commission, disaffected with the army, and disappeared for several years teaching in Europe and working as a ranch hand in Canada before returning to Ireland in 1913. He met James Connolly and, according to Phoenix, was immediately converted to socialism. White became heavily involved with the trade union movement and along with James Larkin set up the Citizen Army. After the Rising and the execution of Connolly, White moved further left toward communism and later still joined up with anarchists in the Spanish Civil War. He finally settled with his second wife, a Catholic, back at the family home in Broughshane in 1938 and following the outbreak of war rushed to offer his services to his country. Unsurprisingly, though not to White himself, he was refused on the grounds of his political activities in the past. “But I’m not orange or green, I’m red,” he is said to have protested, genuinely puzzled by the sectarianism in his native land. He died in 1946.

So who are today’s misfits? Can we compare Armour’s Home Rule rally in Ballymoney to Jim Allister’s anti-DUP rally on Paisley territory following the European election? How about Michael Portillo, who began his career as an arch Thatcherite but later recanted on many of his right-wing views and ran for the party leadership on a socially liberal platform.

Perhaps, but they’re pale comparisons to Captain Jack White.

At last, Mr Speaker does the right thing

Michael-Martin-26020_17579tSo the Speaker has gone, forced from office by the expenses scandal that has engulfed Westminster.

Traditionally a job for life, the Speaker of the House of Commons is one of the highest offices in the  land, ranking only below the prime minister, the lord chancellor and two archbishops. But there was nothing traditional about Michael Martin’s time as speaker.

The first Catholic to hold the post since the Reformation, proudly working class (he and his wife dined on macaroni and lemonade during their first evening in the palatial Speaker’s House) and determined to do away with the knee breeches and wig associated with the role since time immemorial, Martin looked like he could have been a reformer.

However, reform there came none. During the very years in which the executive became so dominant and reduced the authority of the House of Commons, Michael Martin did nothing to defend the sovereignty of this august body. As sofa government took hold under Tony Blair, more and more MPs lined up to argue Parliament’s case: Lords reform was needed, stronger select committees were needed and, it now emerges, reform of salaries and expenses was needed.

In his unique and powerful position over the Commons, the Speaker could have initiated changes and reforms, or at least have authoritatively pointed MPs in that direction. Instead it has taken a newspaper campaign, the release every day for almost two weeks of MPs’ expense claims and allegations of outrageous misuse of public funds, to bring these issues to prominence.

Combined with his bungling over the search without a warrant by police of Conservative MP Damian Green’s office, and his shocking attack on the harmless Kate Hoey, the writing should have been on the wall.

But such is the exalted position of the Speaker that hardly anybody thought he would resign. He may be inarticulate and he may have a poor grasp of the procedures of the House of Commons, but Speakers do not quit and they are not sacked, it just does not happen.  And there was the argument that with a general election only a year away, Martin should preside over whatever reforms are recommended by Sir Christopher Kelly and the Committee on Standards in Public Life, and let a new parliament under new rules elect a new speaker.

But as the Daily Telegraph churned out further damaging revelations the scandal turned into crisis, the biggest since Suez according to one commentator. And as the sense of crisis grew the murmurings for Martin’s resignation, for that is all they were, turned into a clarion call. Suddenly it was no longer enough that individual MPs would be punished, nor that a Cabinet reshuffle is likely to see Hazel Blears, the Communities Secretary, booted out, nor that other MPs, such as Douglas Hogg, will not be standing at the next election.

Only one person can take responsibility for the system itself and that person is the Speaker, and that is why Michael Martin had to go. 

It was a stunning departure, the first resignation of a speaker in over two centuries, and it has shaken the House of Commons to its core. His friends will continue to carp that he was ousted unfairly, because of his class, his accent or even his religion, but they do him a disservice. He may not have been a good Speaker, but he has done the right thing.

MPs should be dunked in the moat

52103There is clearly something very wrong with the expenses system for MPs at Westminster, as revelations about Tory “grandees” are splashed across the Daily Telegraph today.

Claims for having one’s moat cleaned, one’s chandelier hung and for horse manure for one’s horses all seem quite extraordinary, and clearly in breach of the spirit if not the letter of the rules, for as Douglas Hogg (the man with the moat, pictured) pointed out, his claims were validated by the fees office. But are they any more extraordinary than the Labour MP Margaret Moran’s claim that she needed her second home in Southampton, many miles away from her Luton constituency, because she needed to see her partner and maintain family life as best as possible, at public expense? The cheek.

The Conservative leader, David Cameron, made a robust response and said he was appalled by the claims. Indeed as this post goes live new rules on what Tory MPs can claim have been announced, while all members of the shadow cabinet who made such extraordinary claims will pay back the money.

While these claims might be lavish, taxpayers in Northern Ireland have been privy to the particularly unedifying sight of double-jobbing MPs getting rich from their various posts and the pleas of innocence from Sinn Fein’s absentee MPs regarding their expenses claims.

No sign of contrition from the First Minister, who receives a salary as a minister, an MLA and an MP, while his wife Iris Robinson also receives two salaries as a member at Westminster and Stormont. With a comfortable home in east Belfast and a holiday home in Florida, it is safe to say that these double-jobbers do not take an “average industrial wage” like their Sinn Fein colleagues.

Which is worse, double-jobbing with two, three or more paid posts, ‘flipping’ from one address to the other in order to claim for furnishings at different houses, or claiming rent for three flats in North London (equipped with widescreen televisions and Sony surround sound systems), for five MPs who do not even sit in the House of Commons?

It would be crude to discriminate, but Sinn Fein’s argument that the properties are used for “Parliamentary business” is not convincing. By not taking their seats the MPs neither attend regular sittings of the house nor committee meetings, the two biggest consumers of an MP’s time when at Westminster. So aside from the occasional meeting at 10 Downing Street, what do they do there? And more to the point, how often were they there?

Suzanne Breen, Northern Ireland editor of the Sunday Tribune, was right when she spoke on BBC Radio Ulster yesterday, demanding that Sinn Fein should produce travel receipts for their MPs so that everyone can see exactly how often they have travelled to Westminster.

It is also time that Northern Ireland’s politicians reconsidered how many posts they can hold at one time.

Whether they think they can manage these various jobs or not, as Environment Minister Sammy Wilson has argued, the changing economic climate has, rightly or wrongly, affected how the voter views what our politicians get up to.

It may be true that all this fuss would not be happening if the country was not in the state of economic crisis it is in. But we are, and our political class must act to reassure the voter, and the taxpayer, that where the average family is sacrificing their summer holiday or shopping at Aldi, politicians will also feel some of the pinch. Or at least pay to have their moat cleaned themselves.