All posts by Richard O'Reilly

Northern Ireland Executive to change post-election, but MLA numbers stay the same for now

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Stormont set for administrative changes

After Northern Ireland goes to the polls on May 5th the executive will have a new structure, while proposals to reduce the number of MLA’s from 108 to 90 are still being debated.
Prior to the 2016 election, the Northern Ireland Executive was comprised of 12 departments. This includes the office of the First and Deputy First minister and a cabinet/committee of 11 ministers. Each minister runs a different department i.e. Health, Justice, Education, etc. However after the Stormont House Agreement was signed, it was decided that the current departments should be streamlined.
During the Stormont House meetings, it was suggested that the number of executive departments be reduced from 12 to 9. The office of the First and Deputy First Minister will now also be kNown simply, as the Executive Office. Some departments will remain while others will be amalgamated to in a way reduce the bureaucracy involved in running the executive. Speaking in 2015, when delivering the names of the new departments, then First Minister Peter Robinson said that “there would undoubtedly be greater efficiency”.

 

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The Northern Ireland Executive is to be condensed into 9 departments

Arguably the most prominent issue of the Stormont House Agreement was that of finance and welfare. Given austerity policies and welfare cuts, removing three ministers from the payroll would be considered no bad thing. However, that may not be the end of the reductions, as there are continued calls to reduce the number of Assembly members, earlier than the given deadline of 2021. This deadline was assured by the ‘fresh start’ document; a result of the Stormont Agreement.
One of the most prominent supporters of this proposal is the Alliance Party. Alliance candidate for East Londonderry, Yvonne Boyle reiterated the Parity’s wish to see the numbers of MLA’s reduced. Her and her party actually wanted to see the reduction in MLA’s happen in the upcoming election, not after 2016. “Reducing the number of MLA’s from 108 to 90 could save [the taxpayer] £2.2million every year” she said “Over the next five years that could represent a saving of £11 million”. No small sum, when finance and welfare are such important issues

Yvonne Boyle is among those calling for earlier reductions to MLA numbers
Yvonne Boyle is among those calling for earlier reductions to MLA numbers

It may seem odd that the Alliance party are so keen on the reduction. Being a smaller party in terms of seats, reducing the number of seats per constituency may actually harm their chances in future elections. In an assembly debate in 2015, East Antrim MLA Stewart Dickson argued that to reduce the number of MLAs required only a simple piece of legislation. He said that “the principle that the Assembly is too large and needs to be reduced in size has been accepted and is won.” As for waiting until 2021 he said “why not now?”
Mr. Stewart did mention the potential risk to the Alliance party in such a reduction, but argued that “it was the right thing to do”. During the same debate though, DUP MLA Peter Weir claimed that the Alliance were simply attempting to take a “moral high ground” and that the Alliance was merely attempting to quickly usher in changes, which would benefit their party. While supporting the proposal to lower the number of MLAs in 2021, Mr. Weir warned against any further reduction of MLAs saying that would be a “dreadful attack on democracy” Mr Weir claimed that the Alliance were “grandstanding” on issues which would actually improve its electoral performance.
“Why not now?” is an interesting point however. The Assembly has had to focus its efforts on saving money, and operating with a reduction in welfare. Yet Northern Ireland is clearly over-governed. As of the last census, the population of Northern Ireland is approximately 1,800,000. That equates to each MLA representing approximately 16,700 people. Comparing that with other governing bodies around the UK; Scotland have approximately one MSP per 40,300 people and Wales have roughly one Assembly member per 51,000. If we were to apply those ratios respectively to Northern Ireland, Stormont would only have 44 or 35 MLAs. Considering the number of local councillors and the 18 MP’s in the province, total public official salaries in Northern Ireland are disproportionally high. A non-ministerial MLA can cost £127,000 a year to sustain (including salary, expenses, office costs, etc.) Yvonne Boyle and the Alliance may have a point.

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Northern Ireland has 6 MLAs for each of its 18 constituencies. A total of 108

Unfortunately, this is now unlikely to happen any time soon. The 2016 election is around the corner, so it looks set to be 2021 before there is any change in the number of MLAs. The early fragility of the institution since the Good Friday Agreement may be one reason why there has been a reluctance to change the makeup of Northern Ireland’s local government. However, it has been almost 20 years since David Trimble, Seamus Mallon and that first group of MLAs sat at Stormont. It may be now time to bring about some more structural changes. The decision to condense the Northern Ireland Executive has shown there is a capability to do it, while several MLAs have shown a desire to do it.
One heartening prospect can be inferred though. Perhaps now there is sufficient stability at Stormont to survive a ‘shake-up’. Even if it is a slow ‘shake-up’.

Game of Thrones returns with enjoyable first episode

Acclaimed HBO series Game of Thrones has returned, with episode one of season 6 airing on Sky Atlantic on Monday night. And while, by no means a landmark episode, ‘The Red Woman’ was certainly a welcome opener.

Job one for producers Benioff and Weiss was certainly to address the cliffhanger they had left us all on at the end of season 5. Primarily, the fate of Jon Snow. When last we watched, the young Lord Commander was subjected to a hail of stabbings, which would almost trump the dying moments of Julius Caesar. Yet this is a series of Red Priests and White Walkers, so no one need remain dead for too long. We now have our answer. For now at least, Jon Snow is dead. Rumours persisted about actor Kit Harrington’s presence on set, but his role has been reduced to that of a tragic, cold corpse. Whether he stays that way remains to be seen.

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The episode moved us away from the goings-on in the north, and addressed some of the other characters we’d almost forgotten about while wringing our hands at Jon Snows fate. There was a satisfying moment in which Sansa (Sophie Turner) and Theon (Alfie Allen) were rescued from the Boltons by Brienne (Gwendoline Christie). Heading further south towards Dorne, the show reminded us of the violence with which we’ve grown accustomed to with a number of Martell characters killed off.

The show managed to present some humour through moments of miscommunication by Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) in Mereen and in a debate about beauty, by members of the Dothraki horde that now holds Danaerys (Emilia Clarke). Yet it was the very end of the episode which provided the biggest twist in the tale.

It was the red woman, Mellisandre who had the last say in the episode. Her loss of faith (after Jon Snow’s death) led us to see her true form. In showing us that she was actually an older woman, masked by her faith, Game of Thrones added another plot twist to its long line of shocks.

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However there is a sense that this episode is more about set-up than anything. Bear in mind that the series has now moved beyond the Books which spawned it. George R.R. Martin continues to be an active presence in the writing, but has continually postponed publishing his next book. And after all, we all know that the show must go on.

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Martin has said that he is now putting all his efforts into getting The Winds of Winter published, but for now based on this episode, the Game of Thrones television series is a more than welcome continuation of the fantasy epic.

Man City and Real Madrid play out goalless stalemate

 

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By Richard O’Reilly

Manchester City and Real Madrid played out a goalless draw, in a cagey first leg of their Champions League semi-final.

Manchester City were buoyed before kickoff, by the news that Real Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo would not play. The Madrid striker was ruled out of the squad after sustaining a thigh injury in their 3-0 win over Villarreal.

However, City were unable to capitalize on Ronaldo’s absence as chances in the game came at a premium. The best opportunities of the game came in the second half, when substitute Jese headed against the woodwork. City were then indebted to keeper Joe Hart for keeping out Pepe’s point-blank effort. City themselves, didn’t manage an effort on target until a late Kevin De Bryune free-kick was saved by Keylor Navas.

Ronaldo

Ronaldo had been rested in Real Madrid’s 3-2 weekend win over Rayo Vallecano, and had been expected to feature at the Etihad stadium, however a simple ‘thumbs down’ from the Portuguese star to the BT Sport pundits confirmed that he would sit this one out. That news would have been welcome in the City dressing room, particularly with City captain Vincent Komapny, being fit and ready to marshal the rearguard.

The hosts pressed the Real Madrid midfield effectively in the first half, primarily through the impressive Fernandinho, however City found themselves rarely able to worry the Madrid back four. City were then left to bemoan the premature removal of David Silva on 41 minutes through injury. The Spanish midfielder was replaced by youngster Kelechi Ihenacho, but the striker who scored twice against stoke at the weekend was unable to affect the score line.

In the second half, the hosts managed to find space for Sergio Aguero to shoot from 20 yards, but the Argentine fired over. The former Athletico Madrid striker endured a frustrating game, with clear-cut chances being few and far between. He remains winless against his former cross-city rivals.

At the other end, Sergio Ramos squandered a free header from a Real Madrid corner when he directed his effort straight at Joe Hart. Real continued to press for a goal as they finished the match stronger than their Manchester counterparts. Jese headed against the bar and Pepe fired his close effort straight at Joe Hart, who had done well to make himself big to keep the effort out. Gareth Bale and Casemiro also came close to breaking the deadlock for Real, before De Bryune’s stoppage-time free-kick was saved.

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The result leaves the tie finely poised for the second leg at the Santiago Bernabeu. City will perhaps feel that an opportunity was missed to gain a foothold in the tie. The absence of Real Madrid’s most potent attacking threat should have boosted city’s chances. Without Ronaldo, their opponents seemed reluctant to commit men forward.

Manuel Pellegrini’s men will now almost certainly have to score at the Bernabeu on May 4th. Something which no team, other than Real Madrid has managed to do in the Champions League this season.