Category Archives: Politics

Northern Ireland and the EU Referendum – What next?

With the first anniversary of the EU Referendum on the horizon, it could be argued that the vote to leave the European Union has generated many more questions than answers.

The fate of the United Kingdom appears to have been sealed after Prime Minister Theresa May triggered Article 50 back in March, which officially opened the two-year divorce negotiations with the EU.

Article 50’s triggering puts an end to the UK’s 44-year association with Europe.

The Prime Minister then proceeded to call a snap general election for 8 June, and is set to battle it out with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn for the right to lead the UK out of their EU membership over the next two years.

Regardless of who ends up with the keys to 10 Downing Street, numerous significant issues will need to be addressed to avoid a so-called “hard” Brexit.

One of the most important of these issues concerns the impact that Brexit will have on the island of Ireland, and particularly the questions surrounding the Common Travel Area.

A hard border has not been seen between the Republic and Northern Ireland since before the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, but that is what could materialise following Brexit negotiations.

Most of the Northern Irish electorate voted to remain in the EU, much like voters in Scotland. However, a significant surge in leave votes in England and Wales meant that the leave campaign obtained an overall majority, regardless of the results in the devolved nations.

Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU.

The result of the referendum has been met with widespread anger and ridicule in Northern Ireland. Most of the main parties such as Sinn Féin, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, the Ulster Unionist Party and the Alliance Party all campaigned for a remain outcome, with only the Democratic Unionist Party lobbying for a leave vote in the North.

The SDLP, among others, say that the result is unjust since 56% of Northern Ireland voted in favour of remaining in the EU, and they have called for the Northern Ireland Executive to ‘ensure that the will of the people of Northern Ireland is accurately represented in relation to the European Union.’

Shauna Cusack is a SDLP councillor for the Foyle constituency, and she is adamant that the remain majority in Northern Ireland should be given every opportunity to protect their EU membership, as the consequences may be severe outside the block.

She said: “We have not given our consent to change the constitutional make-up of the North, therefore our membership of Europe should not be altered.

“We here already suffer from the greatest levels of historical, social and economic deprivation and are last on the list when it comes to investment backed and funded by Westminster.

“The ever-reducing Block Grant combined with the austerity of Welfare Reform does not make for a prosperous or bright future.

“EU funding has often been our lifeline. It has provided a plethora of capital and social projects here in the North and has changed both landscapes, communities and even lives. What therefore will fill the gap when this is gone?”

Cllr Cusack was also deeply concerned by the potential of a hard border being erected, and the consequences this may have on those living and working on both sides of the divide.

She asked: “What happens our invisible border on this island? Given our immediate proximity, how will this affect our ability to work, live and claim state assistance in any area of this island, which many in this city and district do?”

“In this single, arguably most life changing political decision of our generation we must ensure that Westminster, for once, respects, protects and prioritises the will of the people here.”

As well as the effects of Brexit mentioned by Cllr Cusack, the demographic that will arguably be hit hardest by the decision to leave is the younger generation.

Youngsters who had grand plans to work within another EU country will find it much more difficult to obtain the legal documents necessary following Brexit negotiations, which may go some way to explaining the sudden upsurge in applications for Irish passports in recent months.

It also remains to be seen how EU citizens studying in the UK will be affected when divorce proceedings are finalised.

Students protest at Westminster, London.

Ulster University Students’ Union President, Colum Mackey, believes that Brexit will have a negative impact on the student bodies in both the UK and the Republic of Ireland, and feels that the overall student experience will suffer drastically.

He said: “The European Union has a terrific relationship with the university, and through EU funding of schemes such as ERASMUS, students are given the opportunity to study abroad in EU nations. This way they can experience unique cultures and make lifelong friendships without losing the overall student experience.

“In the wake of the EU Referendum, I am deeply concerned that schemes such as ERASMUS will not be running for much longer. We may be left relying on funding from the UK government, which is unrealistic given the constant rise in tuition fees year on year.

“There are also many students from EU nations, most notably the Republic of Ireland, who are undergoing their studies here in Northern Ireland and the UK, and it is uncertain at this stage how they will inevitably be affected by the vote.”

When Brexit negotiations finally begin in earnest, those residing in Northern Ireland will be desperate to ensure that the country is not overlooked by the powers that be in Westminster.

Theresa May has previously promised that maintaining the Common Travel Area is an absolute priority for the party, and anything less than an open border could spell logistical chaos in Ireland.

The only question that can be answered with any certainty at this early stage is that the UK will be leaving the European Union – the condition that one of the world’s largest economies will be in when all is said and done is anyone’s guess.

Assembly Elections 2016: South Belfast – it’s anyones game

Lamp posts covered by posters, knocks on the door after dinner every night and a bare minimum of four leaflets coming through the letterbox every morning. Just some of the tell-tale signs that we in Northern Ireland are firmly in election mode.

Hard as it is to believe, we are indeed at the end of another five-year cycle. Over the last five years the ‘house on the hill’ has seen more break-ups, make-ups and dramatic moments than a series of The Only Way is Essex. And now, in the next few days the people of Northern Ireland will go to the polls and the cycle will start all over again.

This time around, the election is threatening to throw up some intriguing results. Even areas like West Belfast, which has elected the same amount of seats to the same parties on the last three occasions, is looking likely to buck the trend. However, of all eighteen constituencies, there is unlikely to be a more absorbing conclusion than in the nip-and-tuck constituency of South Belfast.

In the 2011 elections, South Belfast voted for representation from each of the five ‘main parties’, with the SDLP taking two seats. Fast forward 5 years and not one of the elected MLA’s from 2011 are standing in the race again. This means that whatever happens, 6 candidates who have never previously been elected into position will take up a post at Stormont.

Tough time to be a postman. The parties leaflets
Tough time to be a postman. The parties leaflets in South Belfast

So, what can we expect?

Let’s start with the SDLP, the only party to currently hold more than one assembly seat in the constituency. The party as a whole has undergone a great deal of change since 2011, both in leadership and personnel. This is very apparent in South Belfast, candidates Claire Hanna and Fearghal McKinney are both current South Belfast MLA’s having taken over from the South Belfast stalwart Alistair McDonnell and Conall McDevitt in 2015 and 2013 respectively. The election will therefore act as something of a litmus test in terms of seeing how the constituency has taken to their co-opted MLA’s.

Whilst the party remain confident of returning two MLAs to Stormont from the constituency, it is difficult to ignore the bruising times that the SDLP has endured of late. A common argument against the party during the election campaign has been that the party themselves are unclear as to whether they wish to be part of a government or opposition at Stormont. Despite these protestations, we can be assured that at least one candidate will be elected with relative ease, and it is more likely to be the impressive Hanna, who in recent TV and radio appearances has dealt with issues such as abortion and gay marriage rights in some style.

That’s not to say the party’s deputy leader McKinney is out of luck. He is, however, likely to be involved in a bit of a scrap for the fifth and sixth seats in the constituency.

Another poster seen in South Belfast with two faces is that of the Alliance Party. Unlike the SDLP, this is the first time that Alliance have run with two candidates in the area. As calculated risk taken, one would presume, on the back of the 2011 election where the outgoing Anna Lo topped the poll with 19% of first preference votes to be elected on the first count. The Alliance Party now clearly sense an opportunity to gain another seat at the Stormont table in South Belfast and their two candidates, Paula Bradshaw and Duncan Morrow, both have genuine aspirations of election.

Much like the SDLP, we can expect to see at least one Alliance candidate elected with comfort. Despite her lower split of the area, it is more likely to be Bradshaw whose ground work in the community during previous campaigns (which saw here finish third in the 2015 parliamentary elections) should see her to the finish line.

Alliance received a great deal of criticism, particularly from unionist quarters, during the now infamous flag protests which began in 2012, remember them? But South Belfast candidate Morrow believes that the party can look forward and offer genuine change for the people of Northern Ireland,

“Part of my job as an MLA, should I get in, would be to ask myself what bring people here [to Northern Ireland]? What keeps people here?”

Morrow also believes that the cross-community stance which often sees the party labelled as ‘fence sitters’ is one of their strengths, and this stance is recognised for what it truly is, in South Belfast,

“We have championed the cause of the right of people to live safely right across this community”.

The potential for a second Alliance seat is dependant not only on how the second SDLP candidate fairs, but also on how well received the DUPs two candidate tactic is. Christopher Stalford and Junior Minister Emma Little-Pengelly both have reason to believe that electoral success could be coming their way, but their biggest stumbling block will almost certainly be the potential split in the South Belfast Unionist vote.

With candidates from the UUP, UKIP, PUP and former DUP member Ruth Patterson who is now standing as an independent, the unionist ticket is well populated. It all really depends then, on whether or not unionist voters are willing to transfer their votes in the STV electoral system to other unionist parties. Either that, or we will see a stalemate situation where each party takes a split of the unionist vote thus allowing the likes of SDLP, Alliance and Claire Bailey of the Green Party to share a greater number of 2nd/3rd preference votes.

Sinn Fein have taken the decision to only stand one candidate in South Belfast. Not taking the risk of two candidates means that their candidates Máirtín Ó Muilleoir will be elected without much fuss. Votes from large republican areas such as the Lower Ormeau road will see the Sinn Fein candidate easily past the post.

So it’s all to play for in South Belfast. A race so tight that it will most likely take two counting days until the 6 MLAs have been decided. For now though, the tense waiting game for every candidate begins.

Reduction of MLAs at a Cost

Source: MB Architectural
Source: MB Architectural

After many years of conflict in Northern Ireland, the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 ushered in a new era of peace to the province, and allowed for the devolution of government to the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont. Having voted via referendum, the majority of the electorate in Northern Ireland gave the agreement their approval. However, the system of government provided by the assembly is not without its faults or its criticisms. One such criticism is that the Northern Ireland assembly is over-governed. It is argued that there are simply too many MLAs for such a small population.

There are currently 108 Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) in Stormont who represent a population of approximately 1.811 million people. This equates to there being approximately 1 MLA per 16,788 persons who live here. Comparatively there is around 1 Member of Parliament in Westminster for every 92,000 people in the whole of the UK. In Scotland’s devolved parliament at Holyrood, they have 129 elected MSPs, meaning that Scotland has just 21 more elected representatives than Northern Ireland for a population that is more than twice the size of Northern Ireland’s.

Source: Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northern_Ireland_Assembly
Source: Wikipedia
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northern_Ireland_Assembly

The debate around the reduction of MLAs isn’t exactly a new one. Political commentators, the general public, and politicians themselves have been having a seemingly endless discussion about the issue for a number of years. Having looked at the number representatives in Stormont in relation to the number of representatives in other UK parliaments, it would be difficult for any party to publicly denounce the reduction of MLAs. In recent years there has been increased pressure on the Northern Ireland Assembly to provide value for money. The parties at Stormont tend to be in agreement that there are too many elected representatives in the assembly, and yet despite many years of discussion, there has been little to no definite action taken to address the issue, until quite recently. Surprisingly it was the crisis talks that took place at Stormont in November, and the resulting “Fresh Start Agreement” that set the framework for the reduction of MLAs and assembly departments.

A section of the Stormont House Agreement, or “Fresh Start Agreement”, contains a proposal introduce a bill to reduce the number of government departments from 12 to 9, and to reduce the number of MLAs to 5 per constituency by 2021. The proposal would reduce the number of MLAs from 108 to 90. However, members of The Alliance Party have argued that changes should have been implemented before the May 2016 election, and brought forward an assembly motion to that effect last November. Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson who signed the proposal said, “Estimates are it would save the taxpayer around £2.2 million each year, or £11 million per Assembly term, in wages, expenses and office costs.”

The estimated savings that were suggested by Stewart Dickson are certainly attractive, especially in a time of public sector cuts and austerity. Nevertheless, other parties in the assembly voted against the motion to change the timing of the implementation. Following the vote, Alliance MLA for East Belfast Chris Lyttle slammed those who opposed the motion saying, “It is disappointing other parties decided to act in self-preservation and not follow Alliance’s lead to carry out much-needed reform, while still ensuring representation for smaller parties.” However, ensuring the representation of certain groups was one of the main reasons cited by some parties for not implementing the changes before the most recent elections.

During the debate Sinn Féin’s Pat Sheehan warned members of the dangers of comparing the Northern Ireland Assembly to its UK counterparts saying, “None of those institutions faces the same difficulties as we do here. None of them was established as a response to 30 years of conflict and the serious fault lines and divisions in society that we have here in the North”. He added, “In the Assembly, the question is whether a reduction in the number of MLAs would have a negative impact on representation or equality. There is, for example, a danger that some constituencies will be left without a nationalist representative in some cases or a unionist representative in others.”

Other MLAs who took part in the debate stressed the need for representation of smaller parties, and women in the Assembly. Danny Kennedy of the UUP said, “We also need to see what protections will be in place for some of the smaller parties.”
Women who are already represented in politics could suffer as a result of the reduction of MLAs. Caitríona Ruane said “I welcome the agreement. Let us put it in place now, but let us also make sure that each one of us is proactive in ensuring that we have more women on the ticket.”

If the changes were implemented at this current time, the reduction of MLAs would have affected certain groups within the assembly disproportionately. Based on current election results nationalists within the assembly would be set to lose a staggering 22.5% of their representatives, compared to a unionist loss of 12.5%. Those who designate as “others” would lose 16.66% of their representatives. Hypothetically speaking the Green Party would be the only party who designate as “other” who would not lose a seat. Their party press officer Sara McCracken said, “The Green Party will be working to consolidate its position and increase representation… Green Party supports the changes but have been working towards this coming in after the current mandate.” There would be a 13.33% loss of women in an assembly where women make up just 27.77% of its members.

MLA change new

The Assembly passed the Reduction of Numbers Bill in February of this year which will implement the changes to the number of MLAs as outlined in the “Fresh Start Agreement”. Parties need to work to consolidate their own positions. They also need to consolidate the diversity of representatives in the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Reduction of MLAs will certainly save money, but it could be at a heavy price.

Unite the Union Gives The People A Chance To Grill Politicians Over Ballymena Job Losses

UniteLogo

 

UNITE THE UNION GIVES THE PEOPLE A CHANCE TO GRILL POLITICIANS OVER BALLYMENA JOB LOSSES

 

Unite the Union, Britain and Ireland’s largest trade union, held a public meeting in The Braid town hall in Ballymena last night.

The aim of the meeting was to address the issues of a lack of investment and job cuts that have hit the town and surrounding areas in recent months. Over one thousand manufacturing jobs are due to be lost in Ballymena with the announcement of the closures of tyre company Michelin and tobacco factory JTI Gallaher. Bosses at the two companies broke the news to their staff just before Christmas and doors are due to be shut for good in the summer.

Jamie Delargy, UTV’s Business Editor, chaired the meeting, which saw eight representatives from each of the political parties standing in the upcoming assembly elections face questions from the public. Over a hundred people, some employees of the ill-fated companies marked for closure, filled the auditorium in The Braid town hall in search of answers to the escalating issue.

The sense of anger within the crowd was palpable as the evening started off with one audience member pointing the finger of blame squarely at the politicians and their lack of action in preventing these factory closures in the town. DUP representative David McIlveen defended the performance of his party in the executive, stating that they had overseen the creation of 40,000 new jobs across Northern Ireland since the start of the last assembly term in 2011. This answer was met with a grumble from the crowd and jeers of “Not in Ballymena” from one man.

Another audience member, a worker for Chain Reaction Cycles based in Doagh, raised the issue of the bicycle manufacturing company’s announcement of a merger with English competitor Wiggle. The announcement came in February, and the man said he was issuing a formal ‘notice’ to the politicians of the workers fears that their jobs are in jeopardy. The worry for many, he said, was that jobs could be relocated to Wiggle’s base in Portsmouth and the merger was more like a “takeover.”

Adrian Cochrane-Watson, UUP MLA for South Antrim, responded by saying that he had close ties with the manufacturing sector and was a long-time trade union supporter. He informed the disgruntled worker that he had met with executives at Wiggle and was working on ensuring that no jobs were lost in Northern Ireland as a result of the merger.

Much of the latter portion of the evening saw audience members voicing their disillusionment in the performance of Invest NI, the body responsible for bringing jobs and investment in the region. Many felt that Invest NI’s focus was only on Belfast and they had done little to encourage investment in smaller towns such as Ballymena and Larne.

Lack of jobs for qualified teachers and drops in the profits of local farmers were also among the concerns of various audience members. Those on the panel however, could do little to appease the crowd, other than with assurances that they would try harder in the next five years.

https://www.investni.com/

http://www.unitetheunion.org/

http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/michelin-workers-reeling-from-massive-job-loss-blow-at-ballymena-truck-tyre-factory-34165389.html

Reduction of numbers bill or reduction of women bill?

Stormont_Parliamentary_Building_01

It is one week before the assembly elections; candidates and their respective parties are making last minute moves to try and sway voters; that is one of the few things that they all have in common.

Well, there is one other thing that they have all agreed on, and that is the reduction of numbers bill. This has received cross community support.

In 2021 our MLAs will decrease in number from 108 to 90. This means that there will be five MLAs for each of the 18 constituencies instead of six.

It seems simple enough; my question is who is going to be the one unlucky person to be cut from each constituency.

Will the bill aggravate an existing problem?

In the devolved government of Northern Ireland only 23 out of the current 108 MLAs are women, so just under 21%.

In the assembly in five years from now (when eighteen politicians have to go) who is going to move aside or who is going to be pushed aside by their parties?

What is going to happen to the women in a government where there is already a gender-gap? Will they have space on a stage that is already taken up mostly by male players?

Caitriona Ruane (Sinn Féin) raised this question last year when the bill was being discussed.

She said: “What I would like to see is a much more representative House, with many more women in it. In bringing about the changes that we are bringing about, I am aware that reports have shown that there are potential dangers to women.

“We will come back here in 2021 worse than we are now, and where we are now is nothing short of disgraceful.”

If we are in a “disgraceful” state now, what will it be like when we have to find some politicians to cut?

Does the ‘M’ in MLA stand for man? Most of the parties are against applying quotas, so if this is not resolved by 2021 will Sinn Féin still think that the bill is a good idea?

Sinn Féin is one of the few parties that wants to implement quotas (along with the Greens).

Ms Ruane also said: “If we are really to change things, I argue that we need quotas. That is why I am going to argue here that I do not think that 2016 is the time to make the changes, because I do not want to see unrepresentativeness. It will only create even more difficulties down the line.”

Paula Bradley (DUP) told me that she had similar concerns. She said that she agrees that there needs to be a reduction of numbers, but had fears that women will be further under-represented in politics.

She said: “My greatest worry would be that it would penalise women, because we have found at election time it’s the women that lose out in the end.”

She acknowledged that there is already a small enough number of women in politics and the reduction of MLAs might “jeopardise” the gender further, but that it was “up to the parties” to “mitigate this” concern by “putting women in winnable seats.”

Not all women in politics share our concern. Baroness May Blood told me that she does not believe that this is: “a gender issue.”

Professor Monica McWilliams believes that the reduction of numbers does not have to impact women trying to get into politics: “if the parties adopted an affirmative action programme where they selected women to stand for safe seats.”

‘If’ being the operative word here.

Steven Agnew said that the Greens support the bill, but do share my “concerns about the impact on the number of female MLAs which is why [they] proposed there should be a minimum one third quota of female candidates for all political parties.”

Alliance wanted to see the bill in place for next week’s elections, instead of the next one.

Chris Lyttle (Alliance) personally proposed an amendment to the bill that would have seen the reduction in time for the upcoming elections, but the other parties blocked this proposal.

Mr Lyttle told me why he wanted to bring the change so early.

He said: “This would have saved approximately £11m over five years, which could have been reinvested in front-line public services in dire need of funding, for example health. The other parties blocked this proposal but I am still no clearer as to why it would be appropriate in 2021 but not 2016.”

He acknowledged that something has to be done to address the gender-gap, but does not believe that the bill will affect women.

He said: “I am proud to work with many talented women in the Alliance Party but I strongly agree that we need to do all we can to encourage more women to get involved in politics.”

He went on to say that “I don’t think the number of MLAs is a key factor in whether women decide to get involved in politics or are elected or not,” but said that he is not sure “what steps need to be taken to address the under-representation.”

I said at the beginning that the bill is something that our politicians have in common, because it received cross community support, but their opinions on whether the proposed change will affect women is another matter.

Everyone disagrees on whether the reduction will affect women, but what is clear is that there is a gender-gap in Northern Irish politics, and it will probably not change next week when the same old politicians are voted in as usual.

As for 2021, we will have to wait until five years’ time to see what parties will put women forward for winnable seats for an assembly made up of only 90 MLAs.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil set to continue negotiations over historic government deal

Fine Gael’s slogan for their Irish General Election 2016 campaign was “Keep the recovery going”. It saw the election campaign as an opportunity to convince the electorate that the party’s hard work over the previous five years was responsible for the improving economy. Unfortunately for the governing party, it’s ‘hard work’ translated as five years of crippling austerity to many Irish voters, and Fine Gael paid the penalty on 26 February when the people went to the polling stations.

Despite remaining the largest party in the country after winning 50 seats, 26 less than the amount it managed in the 2011 general election, Fine Gael lost the election. There was to be little in the form of good news for its junior coalition partner Labour, which suffered absolute decimation at the polls and which is left with just seven seats, 30 less than it got in 2011. In stark contrast, Fianna Fáil capitalised on the widespread anger felt towards the coalition parties by more than doubling its number of seats to 44. It was also a positive result for Sinn Féin and Independents, who won 23 and 18 seats respectively.

The Irish people have had their say, but almost two months have passed since the vote, and a government is still yet to be formed in the 32nd Dáil. Fine Gael will by now have adjusted to the fact that it will possibly be required to form a minority government with its arch-nemesis Fianna Fáil. The rivalry between the two parties dates back almost one hundred years to the time of the Irish Civil War, but it should be time for differences to be put to the side for the sake of the Irish people.

As the days and weeks continue to pile up in anticipation of the next Dáil, there has been a plethora of statements and announcements from various cabinet ministers and TDs claiming that there has been progress made on the brokering of a deal. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil’s respective leaders Enda Kenny and Michael Martin have sat down and attempted to negotiate a compromise between the parties, but there is currently no significant signs of any headway being made. The reason for this impasse appears to boil down to the infamous water charges, which have been one of the most universally loathed policies of Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s regime.

The main issue is that Irish taxpayers feel they are being overcharged for a service that has been in place for years, with the responsibility for the maintenance of water being taken from local authorities and placed in the hands of a semi-state corporation. Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin have continuously been vocal in their opposition to Irish Water, and echo the feelings of many who feel the charge is simply austerity taken too far.

Fianna Fáil stated in its election manifesto that if the party was to be elected to government, the scrapping or at the very least suspension of water charges would be an absolute priority. It is now apparent that the party’s pre-election promise to the electorate is what is causing the bitter deadlock between the two parties, with neither of the two willing to budge on the matter.

Sinn Féin frontbencher and Dáil spokesperson for Finance Pearse Doherty is adamant that the potential coalition of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil would be a negative outcome for the Irish people, but concedes that this circumstance is the most likely to occur.

“It is evident that both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are engaged in a pointless charade of political posturing. It is a fact that no political party has been given a mandate by the people to govern alone, and the only numbers that add up are for both parties to work together.

“While I do not believe that this outcome would be a good one for Irish society, it is apparent that there is a reluctance on both sides to make this happen.”

Mr Doherty suspects that this “political posturing” is inexcusable considering the histories of both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, who share vastly similar political beliefs.

“The political ideologies espoused by both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are essentially the same, as both are fundamentally right wing conservative parties, with little variation in the policies which each respectively endorse.

“I believe that the delays and impasse which we are witnessing at present is a feeble attempt by both groups to pacify grass root supporters who are staunchly opposed to the notion of the two Civil War foes entering into Government together, or even an arrangement whereby one would facilitate a minority administration led by the other.”

The TD for the Donegal constituency maintains that his party are striving to deliver a fairer society for those who voted for one, and that potentially becoming the main government opposition would not be seen as a negative scenario for Sinn Féin.

“We have made it clear that we support progressive policies which promote fairness and equality. We firmly believe that those who voted for Sinn Féin did not do so simply to see a continuation of the failed economic and social strategies of successive Governments.

“Therefore, Sinn Féin has a duty to represent the views of the people who believe in our vision for a fairer, more inclusive society. If the only way to ensure that we do not compromise on these fundamental Republican principals is to remain in opposition, then so be it.

“However, Sinn Féin is open to constructive dialogue with anyone or any grouping whom express a desire to engage with us.”

Mr Doherty’s admission that his party have left the door open for negotiations is an intriguing one, but it is very unlikely that Sinn Féin will form any part of the new government in the 32nd Dáil, particularly given their political beliefs.

As well as opposing politicians, many voters have also expressed their disbelief at the farcical attempts made by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to form a government. Liam Brady is a student who studies at University College Dublin, and who recently was elected to the UCD Students’ Union as Arts and Human Sciences Convenor. His role in the Students’ Union requires him to keep a close eye on events occurring at the nearby Leinster House, and it is evident that the political situation unfolding has led to him sharing the frustrations of many.

“I believe that no matter what excuses both sides claim for not reaching an agreement, and their inefficiency to form a government, simply boils down to their Civil War sides and the lengthy hostilities that followed on from this ever since.

“Neither party wants to be the junior partner of a coalition, especially after the devastation the Labour Party suffered in the General Election. As such both sides are being overly cautious and are failing the democratic process. In my opinion the Irish electorate
voted for a Fine Gael led coalition with Fianna Fáil, and the votes from TDs in the negotiations favour Enda Kenny over Michael Martin.”

His sentiments echo those of Pearse Doherty TD, who also speculated that the impasse between the two parties dates back to Civil War times. Both the Member of Parliament and the voter also expressed similar views regarding Sinn Féin’s role in the Oireachtas, with Mr Brady agreeing that the Republican party are now poised to provide genuine opposition to a right wing government.

“A clear right-left divide between government and opposition I feel is the obvious government formation. I think Sinn Fein have had time to grow and develop themselves and are now absolutely ready to be the main opposition in the Dáil.

“Two right wing parties colliding in government and opposition will only see arguments between choosing one form of austerity over another. At least with a clear right-left divide it fosters the opportunity for proper alternatives and arguments.”

Mr Brady is hopeful that the formation of a government will be announced sooner rather than later, and he believes that two of the first issues tackled by the next Dáil should be the housing crisis and the issue of mental health.

“The housing crisis is an absolute must. Since being elected to the UCD Students’ Union I have had a number of students approach me regarding the hassles of Dublin rent prices. It is becoming apparent that it is increasingly tough for young people to migrate to the capital for third level education due to extortionate rent prices.

“I also believe that the homeless crisis falls under this problem too and should be another key concern for the next government.

“There is also the issue of the mental health budget being cut by €12 million. The lack of interest in this department showed itself in all of the major party’s election manifestos, but reducing its budget is an utterly disgraceful move and should absolutely be rectified by the next Dáil.”

Talks will continue in Dublin between the negotiating teams of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil in the hope of a new government being formed within the coming weeks. Almost two months have now elapsed since the General Election. If an agreement is not reached soon, there are fears that there may be no other alternative than for another election to be called – at a cost of around €40 million of taxpayers’ money.

Planning for the future

 

just makes sense

“The entire process has been so stressful. If we knew what was involved we would never have started it.” These are the words of Julie and David McGowan. They have been fighting to obtain planning permission for an extension to their family home in North Down for almost a year.

Under the reform of public administration, the Department of Environment transferred powers to 11 new super councils in Northern Ireland on the 1st April this year. These replaced 26 existing councils in Northern Ireland and as part of their remit, the super councils inherited new planning powers, previously held by the department of environment.

But according to the McGowan family, the transition has been far from smooth.

Julie said: “When our third child came along we were faced with the decision of either upsizing or extending our family home. We have always been really happy where we are and didn’t want the hassle of moving so we settled on an extension. We had no idea what was in store and the time we have spent on the planning process would have been better spent on searching for a bigger home.

“The problem seems to be with the transfer to the new super-councils. Where before planning powers lay with the DOE now you have to apply to your local council. When we researched the planning application process we were advised to wait until the new super councils came into force as it would be “more straightforward.”

Julie added: “It has been anything but.”

According to the NI Direct, government website the reform of public administration stipulates that the changes to planning allows local councils to shape how their areas grow and develop. It also states that this is the most significant change to the planning system in more than 40 years but claims that the responsibility is shared by the department of the environment and the local councils. Herein lies the confusion seemingly.

Following the advice they had received, Julie and David approached their local planning officer for Ards and North Down as instructed after the 1st April this year. As far as they were concerned this was the first point of call in order to get their planning application underway. They were told that although the transfer of planning powers to local councils had officially taken place, it wasn’t fully implemented yet and their application should be referred to the DOE. When contacted, the DOE responded to the McGowan’s application by stating that planning powers have been devolved to local councils since the 1st of April this year and therefore their application should be submitted to their local council.

So who is responsible for local planning and where is the transparency for the public?

Under the reform of public administration in Northern Ireland, the decision to move planning powers from the DOE to local councils was “designed to make planning a speedier, simpler and more streamlined process. They will make it easier for people to access and take part in the planning process and help deliver faster and more predictable decisions.”

The McGowan family beg to differ.

Public protocol for submitting a planning application appears to be quite straightforward. According to the website, local councils are now responsible for “the vast majority of planning applications.” All applications are seemingly; “categorised as local, major and regionally significant, with councils responsible for determining all local and major applications. Each council has established a planning committee to consider and decide these applications, however not all applications will come before the planning committee for decision.

The council will publish a Scheme of Delegation that will set out which applications will be dealt with by the planning committee and which will be delegated to officers. The applications that are likely to come before the committee for decision may include large developments, contentious applications and those that receive a number of objections.”

Having read this, Julie approached her local council planning officer again, quoting the appropriate instructions: “I read all of the information carefully and it seemed clear to me that our application would be categorised as a local application and therefore it would be delegated to officers.

“But we have since been told that the scheme of delegation is yet to go ahead but our application is likely to have to go before the planning committee and this may take up to a year. As far as we can understand, only contentious, large or applications with objections need to go before the committee. All we want is an extra bedroom above our garage and a garage conversion. It’s hardly contentious.”

When contacted, the planning officer for the McGowan’s local council Ards and North Down said she: “could not comment on individual applications but the public need to be patient. The transfer of planning powers is an ongoing process but one that will ensure a simpler and speedier application process in the long run.”

A spokesperson for the DOE said: “The department of the environment can confirm that planning powers for local planning applications have now been fully transferred to local councils and the process is now complete. Anyone with planning queries should contact their council planning office.”

The McGowan family are not satisfied with these statements and say: “This is simply not good enough. We undertook the idea of extending our house on the pretence that getting planning permission would be much more straightforward with the new super councils. I know it was a long, drawn-out process in the past. The DOE and our local council are just passing the buck with this now. Change is always good in theory but in practice this is a mess. We are a family left in limbo with no idea whether our application will be approved eventually. We should’ve just moved house.”

It would seem that although the reform of public administration was designed to make public services simpler, it has only served to make things more complicated and frustrating for the public.

Super Council’s and Ratepayers Clash over Bills

Figures from the Department of Finance have shown that up to 350,000 households in Northern Ireland have been affected by increased rates due to the formation of the super councils.

Finance Minister Simon Hamilton has said that the people affected will be able to get a discount and that he will address the increases which are a direct result of the creation of the new councils.

Mr Hamilton said: “Differences have built up in the level of district rates chargeable by the old councils and those that will be chargeable under the new larger councils”.

Finance Minister Simon Hamilton has said there is help for ratepayers
Finance Minister Simon Hamilton has said there is help for ratepayers

The executive has put aside £30 million to assist ratepayers.

The SDLP’s Alex Attwood has previously said that more help is needed for ratepayers. Mr Attwood said: “The consequence of convergence is that the rate burden will change within the new council areas. If anyone is pretending otherwise they are not being fully honest with people.

“Thirty million was secured by me to help that transition, and if hard figures are coming in that say the burden is even greater than people might have anticipated, then there should be a budget discussion in order to help people to ensure there is no further burden placed upon them.”

The SDLP's ALex Attwood has criticised the lack of assistance for householders
The SDLP’s ALex Attwood has criticised the lack of assistance for householders

The District Rate Subsidy scheme only applies to domestic and non-domestic ratepayers in certain areas and the only exceptions are public bodies and social housing landlords where rates are already standardised.

Mr Hamilton continued: “The scheme will be of most benefit, however, to the 23,000 Lisburn, Castlereagh and North Down ratepayers falling within the new boundary of Belfast City Council, as well as around 30,000 ratepayers in Fermanagh that will be served by the new Fermanagh and Omagh Council.

“Typically, an average domestic ratepayer in these areas will receive a discount of around £40 or £50 off their rate bill this year.

“Castlereagh ratepayers who are moving into Belfast will, on average, get a discount of around £90.”

26 district councils have been replaced by 11 super councils
26 district councils have been replaced by 11 super councils

An elderly couple from Loughbrickland, who are under the Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council have seen their rates rise due to the new super council.

Mrs Graham said: “There are just so many bills to face it’s hard to cope to sometimes. I know there is a scheme to help but it will probably not make much difference. The councils need to think about the community when they decide to do these things because some of us just can’t afford any more bills”.

A spokesperson for the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) said: “The new councils are free to strike whatever rate they consider appropriate to meet their new expenditure needs.

“DFP expects that, where there is a significant disparity between the existing councils that are coming together, the new district rate will be struck at a level that lies between the existing district rates but DFP cannot control this in any way.”

Northern Ireland’s 26 district councils were replaced by 11 larger, super councils on the 1st April 2015 and while they continue to provide the same services as the previous councils they also have a number of new powers and responsibilities.

These include:

  • Off-street parking (except park and ride)
  • Local economic development
  • Community planning process
  • Control of alterations, extensions and demolition of listed buildings
  • Conservation area designation and management

‘The New council of Newry, Mourne and Down have ambitious hopes to lead and serve a district that is prosperous, healthy and sustainable.’

On April 1 2015 the councils across Northern Ireland changed into what is now known as ‘Super councils.’ The council numbers went down from 26 councils to 11 councils. This is conveyed in the diagram below:

A map of Northern Ireland's new council areas
A map of Northern Ireland’s new council areas

The councils would still retain the same powers as previous councils but now with additional powers. A number of functions which were previously delivered by the NI Executive department are now in the hands of the council these include:

  • Local Planning Functions
  • Off-street parking
  • Local economic developmement
  • Community development (will transfer in April 2016)
  • Urban regeneration (will transfer in April 2016)

See link http://www.nidirect.gov.uk/local-government-reform

In this article I am going to look at Urban Regeneration in the new council area of Newry, Mourne and Down District council.

Newry, Mourne and Down District council is the third largest council area in Northern Ireland with a population of 171, 500 people and a coastline of 100 miles approximately. The council has ambitious plans for its future but claim their biggest challenge is establishing a new organisation and providing seamless change. The next four years of the councils strategic planning is crucial. It will be in this time that they want to deliver and make a real difference to the economic, health, educational and environmental well being of the district.

Last week I spoke with the new Economic Development and Regeneration officer at Newry and Mourne District Council, Sandra Magee. She explained more to be the plans of regeneration for the new Newry, Mourne and Down District council.

‘This is a new era for the district as a new council Newry, Mourne and down district council which was established following the amalgamation of Newry and Mourne District council with Down District council’, said Mrs Magee.

She explained that it is an exciting time for the district but also very challenging. ‘Although recent economic data points to recovery which is well underway and real opportunities for the future economic prosperity we have significant number of areas of social deprivation.’

“Regeneration” is more than just tackling disadvantage across the area said Mrs Magee. ‘It is about making improvements to business premises a concrete aspect of tackling visual disadvantage but we have 5 themes to get in there and cover the nitty gritty. Our council is very lucky to have many assets such as the beautiful natural environment, strategic location on the Island of Ireland and impressive built heritage which we must capitalise on them.’

The Five themes for Newry, Mourne and Down District Council are:

  • Theme 1 Economic Development
  • Theme 2 Tourism Development, making promotion
  • Theme 3 Urban Development & Events & regeneration
  • Theme 4 Rural development and regeneration
  • Theme 5 Culture and the Arts.

The Diagrams below convey examples of how the New council of Newry, Mourne and Down hope to achieve this regeneration:

 

                         Strengths Weaknesses
· Strategic importance of location North/South economic corridor and eastern Seaboard· Strong entrepreneurial tradition·Outstanding natural beauty of the area

·         Availability of wide range of outdoor activities

· Strong agricultural and fishing tradition

·Diverse cultural offering

·Several key cultural assets and active local arts communities

·Good cross border linkages

·Poor connectivity- roads broadband·Business networks fragmented·  Aging workforce

· Natural resources not creating business opportunities/jobs

· Lack of strong, identifiable brand for the region

·Some areas of disadvantage still remain

· Over reliance on domestic and Irish visitor market

· Lack of cohesion of cultural sector and few links with tourism

· Contribution of culture and arts to the economy not recognised

 

                         Opportunities Threats
·Strategic opportunities at warrenpoint & Kilkeel Harbour·Business support for growing businesses· Collaboration with invest NI & Tourism Ireland to attract investment

·Use of the Diaspora, local business champions

· Engagement for colleges & schools

· Mournes as a tourism destination

·Location for outdoor/adventure tourism & food tourism

·Community asset transfer model

· Public/private cultural and tourism partnerships

·Strong cross border linkages and partnerships

·Slow economic growth·Competition from Belfast and Dublin for new investment·Reduced public spending resources

·Currency fluctuation creates uncertainty

·Development pressures

·Political legacy need for rural regeneration

·External negative perceptions of border area as area to invest and visit in

·Concern that much of the focus will be on the ‘Newry’ part of the new council

Below is an example of Newry, Mourne and Down District’s Council Strategic plans:

By 2019, we will have:

  1. Become one of the premier tourism destinations on the island of Ireland;
  2. Attracted investment and supported the creation of new jobs;
  3. Supported improved health and wellbeing outcomes;
  4. protected our natural and built environment;
  5. led the regeneration of our urban and rural areas;
  6. Advocated on your behalf specifically in relation to those issues which really matter to you;
  7. Empowered and improved the capacity of our communities; and
  8. Transformed and modernised the Council, providing accessible as well as value for money services.

 

There is no doubt Newry, Mourne and Down District council are conveying their ‘super’ powers already with their ambitious goals. Regeneration is a huge element in obtaining these. Mrs Magee said, ‘It is important that we achieve these goals but even more important is that we are able to sustain them.’

Given the councils strategic development plans for the future of the district if they ‘were’ able to achieve and maintain these goals then Newry, Mourne and Down District Council will undoubtedly be a ‘Super Council.’

For more information on Newry, Mourne and Down District council please visit the below links:

http://www.newrymournedown.org

Newry Address:
Monaghan Row, Newry, BT35 8DJ, Northern Ireland
Council: 0300 013 2233
Planning: 0300 200 7830
Email: info@nmandd.org

Downpatrick Address:
Downshire Civic Centre, Ardglass Road, Downpatrick, BT30 6GQ

http://www.doeni.gov.uk/index/local_government/local_government_reform

 

Super Council Planning Corruption

A map of Northern Ireland's new council areas
A map of Northern Ireland’s new council areas

In the run-up to the launch of Northern Ireland’s local government reforms adverts assured the general public that the new councils with additional powers would create a “stronger”, “more cost effective” and “citizen focussed” government. One month on from the super-councils take-over what are the major issues facing the new councils?

Considering the fact that the biggest change to the councils has been the devolution of planning responsibilities it is hardly surprising that an issue connected to planning has proven to be the first stumbling block.  The primary concern appears to be over the possibility of corruption and incompetence in the new planning processes. But what planning powers exactly have been transferred and why?

As far back as 2002 the Northern Ireland Executive commissioned a review into public administration across Northern Ireland. Many suggestions were made as a result of this inquiry, importantly the recommendation that the number of councils (26 at this time) be reduced. By 2008 the Executive was finally able to reveal plans, after several years of delays, to condense the 26 councils to 11 and devolve some centrally held powers to the local government. A package of £47.8 million was set aside to fund the changes. The chief aim being to create cheaper, more efficient local government.

The transfer of planning responsibility from the Department of the Environment to the super- councils was a major part of the 2008 reform package. It was felt that giving councils the work of planning would mean that decisions would be more transparent, more likely to reflect the local communities, and support local needs. This transfer also afforded the government the opportunity to overhaul planning procedure: in theory it has now become a much quicker, simpler and more streamlined process.

There are three planning application categories: local, major and regional. Councils have sole responsibility for the decision-making on all local and major applications, while all regional applications are to be decided on by the DoE. The DoE will also retain legislative, policy and oversight responsibilities.

Each council must establish a planning committee that will create a document known as a “Scheme of Delegation” and this will dictate what is dealt with by the committee (most probably controversial applications or plans for large developments) and what is dealt with by planning officers.  There are also local planning offices opening in each council area, meaning more communication and clarity for those applying. Mark Durkan has said of the reforms: “these improvements will bring planning closer to the public and make it easier for the public to access and participate in the planning process”.

Mr Durkan’s comments seems reasonable:  these reforms to planning are certainly an improvement on the old system which left un-elected civil servants making the majority of planning decisions centrally, but there are major areas of concern which have been flagged-up in the last few weeks.

The Northern Ireland Ombudsman Tom Frawley has spoken out about his anxieties over the possibility of corruption infiltrating the planning process. His concerns are related to the fact that Northern Ireland’s political parties do not currently have to declare donations made to their party. Mr Frawley therefore believes it may be possible for property developers to bribe councillors into approving applications.

Northern Ireland’s Chief Planning Officer Fiona McCandless countered Mr Frawley’s misgivings by claiming that the new code of conduct that was drawn-up for councillors who sit on the new super-councils will ensure impartiality. The code stresses the importance of acting in the public interest at all times and specifies that no councillor should act in order to gain financial or material benefit. A section that specifically refers to planning has also been included. Ms McCandless has said of the transfer of planning powers to councils: “We have done a huge amount of work in terms of making sure the necessary procedures are in place to ensure that there is accountability in order to secure confidence in the system”.

However this new code of conduct and the procedures that have been introduced to councils are not universally popular. Belfast City Councillor Claire Hanna, for example, was unconvinced when I interviewed her:” I’m not yet persuaded that the changes will be effectively worked between a restrictive code of conduct (particularly as regards advocacy on planning) and potential log-jam from the ‘call in’ (qualified majority voting) mechanisms, which are likely to be abused in a similar manner to the petition of concern at Stormont.”

Belfast City hall

Others are aware that a balance between bureaucracy and transparency must be reached: Councillor John Hussey was clear on this matter when I spoke with him: “people worry that poor or dubious decisions will be made if the members of the Planning Committees don’t properly understand their role and function.  To prevent this, a great deal of training has been given to Councillors who will serve on the Planning Committee which should ensure they make proper and fair decisions.”

On the question of possible venality in the planning process Cllr Hussey said: “The potential for corruption in the administration of government functions is always a concern.  However there is less possibility of corruption in a planning system which is entirely open to the public as this new system is, than in the previous system where planning decisions were taken by civil servants acting alone and out of public view.”

The Northern Ireland Local Government Association is keen to emphasise the great gains that will come with planning reforms: Chief Executive Declan McCallan has said that there will be no “poverty of ambition” from politicians and rate payers alike. The potential for regeneration is being held-up as the legacy of new council powers and politicians have only to point to the transformation of Manchester, where the city council were given development responsibility, to show what can be achieved.

Despite controversy and apprehension for better or worse these powers have been devolved and only time will tell whether this move will lead to regeneration and growth, or exploitation and ineptitude.