Ross Kemp on our Extreme World

Welcome to Northern Ireland Ross!
Welcome to Northern Ireland Ross!

There’s a burly bald guy on the TV wearing shades and he is jogging down a street looking like he means business. And then you look a bit closer. That’s not a real hard man – just look at the clobber for a start – you don’t get that kind of gear in TK Maxx. When he takes his dark glasses off he just doesn’t have the eyes. You know what I mean: the cold, dead, merciless eyes of people who have done seriously bad things. We have that kind everywhere, even in government.

Yes, that’s not a gangster. It’s the actor turned journalist Ross Kemp. And look, aren’t those the Ardoyne shops, just to the right of the screen? Yes indeed they are. For Mr Kemp is in town to film the latest episode of his Extreme World series.

Extreme World is about “the most dangerous places in the world” The current series takes us to Lebanon, Papua New Guinea and the slums of Rio. Last time around he was in the Congo and Pakistan. But today, right there on the telly, this is “Our Time, Our Place” and there’s Ross with his camera crew at Twaddell Avenue watching teenagers throw rocks at cars.

This was not quite what the powers that be had in mind when they said they wanted to stimulate the film industry here. Nor will the scenes that followed be repeated in the Tourist Board’s marketing materials. In terms of dismantling Northern Ireland’s positive image, this was about as damaging as it can possibly get.

But it is worth watching again and again, if only because it gives us a compelling insight into what the rest of the world, especially people in the rest of the UK actually think of us and if this sort of programme does not help to wake politicians up from their collective inability to resolve conflict nothing will.

Let’s start with just one minor detail: the supreme irony that in the very week that a senior Orange man went to war on the Irish language, that an English broadcaster felt the need to use subtitles when interviewing loyalists in north Belfast. That in itself is worth thinking about. I doubt it would happen in Newcastle, Birmingham or Liverpool. The use of subtitles is a sign of just how much viewers regard Northern Ireland as an alien place, certainly not part of their world, a very different Extreme World.

The reality is that people can fly the flag and feel as British as they like, but many fellow Brits regard them as strange, alien, and yes, let’s be frank about this: frightening.

Then there were the interviews. It was almost as if Kemp’s research team had scooped up all the most incoherent, illogical and plain stupid contributors from the Nolan Show and then got them to tell us what Northern Ireland is all about, aided, as previously noted, by the occasional use of subtitles. Frankly anyone watching from anywhere else in the world must have concluded that we are all deranged.

The programme shifted from Derry/Londonderry to Belfast. In the Maiden City Kemp gulped at the damage from shrapnel and RPGs at a police barracks, before heading off in his black Mondeo to chat to Gary Donnelly of the 32 Counties Sovereignty Committee who told him why dissidents would continue with “armed struggle”.  In between we heard about punishment shootings and the activities of Republicans Against Drugs.

Then we were on the peace walls in north and west Belfast. Viewers from elsewhere will have been horrified to note that there are now more than there were before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. And surely too, they would have been astonished to notice how many people were up so early on the morning of the Twelfth both to be offended and to give offence.

What a place!

Of course many people here will argue that Kemp doesn’t understand. He has no real insight into their grievances and issues. That is not the point at all.

What we were getting was an insight into how others see us, it is nothing whatsoever to do with how we would like to be portrayed, or indeed how we truly are. And what others will have taken from the show was that Northern Ireland is a divided, bitter, violent, ugly, hate-filled place locked in its past, and dominated by a tribal rivalry which is utterly incomprehensible to the outside world and totally alien to it.

When you strip it all down that is how we were portrayed and that is how we will continue to be seen unless and until outstanding issues are resolved.

What will especially have struck those in the rest of the UK is the cost of the rioting – £25 million. At a time of massive cutbacks in public services why on earth, they will say to themselves, should we continue to subsidise a place we prop up, in order to help fund the cost of mayhem?


Why We Should Support Friday’s Union Peace Rally

One of the saddest and most frustrating features of politics in Northern Ireland is the extent to which all the bigger parties are stuck in their tribal past.

They often get blamed for showing a lack of leadership in an apparent collective failure to move beyond sectarian politics and to work together to create a better, more prosperous and harmonious Northern Ireland.

Successive opinion polls show an alarming disenchantment with politicians, indeed the entire political process and a strong desire in the population for them to move on and engage more effectively in creating a stronger economy for the benefit of all.

However, as I have written before politics is about winning elections and there has been little evidence in the past that when parties do make brave and bold gestures they get rewarded at the ballot box. When it comes down to voting we tend to vote for the strongest voice in our community, even if the policies they go on to pursue are not what we want.

And the danger here is that politicians then become overly influenced by the margins and extremes: nationalists look over their shoulders at the small but vocal dissident groups, and unionists by the wilder elements of loyalism. The middle ground suffers, progress is not made, the electorate becomes more disengaged and frustrated.

It is easy to blame politicians for this, but it is not entirely fair: they are simply responding to the only real evidence they rely on in formulating policy – voter behaviour.

If we are to change that, to encourage our politicians to take heart and make difficult decisions in the wider interests of society, they need to be told that that is what we want. In order for that to happen other voices need to assert themselves so that we can do so clearly and in numbers.

During the Troubles the business community was largely silent as the economy was ripped apart, lives ruined and communities and workplaces fell under the evil spell of sectarianism and mutual loathing. Recently however business organisations have become much more vocal in asserting the need for a strong, stable economy and condemning the violence, illegal demonstrations and carnage that so blight both the present and our future. There is no doubt that through their efforts the business community has had an impact on politicians.

The Trades Union movement, which represents 215,000 members in Northern Ireland, has throughout the bad times united people from all communities in opposing sectarianism and violence and its peace rallies have been a major contribution to progress, giving ordinary people the opportunity to make their feelings known.

Tomorrow (Friday) the Irish Congress of Trades Unions will be holding a rally in Belfast city centre which calls on all parties to end political paralysis which is holding us back and to work together for the benefit of all.

And very briefly here are just a few of the issues we should be concerned about.

The failure to effectively reform failing schools. Only one third of children on free school meals achieve five GCSEs Grade A*-C – double that ratio get such grades amongst children not eligible for FSM – and less than 30 per cent of those children of the working poor and the jobless achieve two A-Levels. An even smaller proportion of children entitled to free school meals, 18 per cent, go onto third-level education.


The slow progress in building enterprise. Of 62 cities surveyed across the UK, Belfast had the lowest number of business start ups. An important factor here is the sheer size of the public sector in Northern Ireland. So whilst in the prosperous south east of England, the private sector has replaced jobs lost by the public sector, we are still in recession because the scale of the public sector means that cuts affect the private sector. The same medicine doesn’t work.


Political disputes holding up major investment projects. The A5 road project has so far cost £60 million and has not materialised. We all know about the Maze development. Whichever way you stand on that one £18 million of EU funding has now been lost. A similar problem is looming over potential withdrawal of EU funding to the Narrow Water Bridge project and we recently had the spat between the Departments of Finance and Agriculture which Lord Chief Justice Morgan described as “a case about political failure.”


These are all critical issues to our future. And school reform, effective investment to create jobs, and finding an effective way to stimulate enterprise are just a few of the issues that should be centre stage. Instead politicians are finding themselves distracted by the age old political pursuit of whataboutery as they fail to build stable foundations whereby these other issues would be more effectively addressed.

In the meantime whilst other parts of the UK are recovering and we are falling behind exacerbates discontent and deprivation, which in turn feeds conflict.

Some politicians have criticised the unions for organising the rally, presumably they think that the unions have no business engaging with politics which should be left to them. Politics, of course, is the legitimate concern of every citizen and the involvement of both businesses and unions in the process is vital if we are to persuade the parties, that yes, we are ready for change, and that we do expect them to compromise in the wider interests of society.



Stormont on Friday: Addiction Care and Illegal Dumping

Our weekly digest of debates you may have missed at Stormont

Long road to recovery? The UUP’s Ross Hussey said, in a Tuesday debate on the future Tyrone and Fermanagh Hospital’s addiction treatment unit, that he is worried centralisation of services is ongoing because it is financially easy, and could lead to “insufficient” care. The MLA said retention of an addiction treatment service in the Western Trust area was vital.

The DUP’s Tom Buchanan said people in Omagh and Fermanagh are disappointed at the proposed loss of addiction care, saying leaving the entire trust area without such a service “runs contrary to the very ethos of Transforming Your Care (TYC)”. He added that alcohol problems are especially prevalent in rural areas, and people in the area should not be expected to travel to Antrim or Down for treatment, while the links between substance abuse and mental health issues should also be considered. Sinn Féin said detoxification and stabilisation are important issues, and that travelling to Holywell could prove dangerous due to the distance, especially as ambulance cover west of the Bann is “scant” and public transport lacking.

The SDLP said it accepts the need for change but not the direction of TYC, while the specific proposals come with a “significant” geographical barrier, calling into question quality of care for those in the west. The Health Minister said substance abuse is one of our main public health challenges, costing around £1bn per year, while changing services will reflect the closer-to-home ethos of TYC – but that no decisions have been made, and the HSC Board will take geographic considerations into account.


Rubbish disposal? At Question Time on Tuesday, the DUP’s Sydney Anderson asked the Environment Minister what he planned to do in light of the recent review into waste disposal which showed widespread illegal dumping. Mr Durkan said the report “powerfully illustrates” local issues in this area, with an estimated 516,000 tonnes found at the illegal Campsie site, while the problem is known to not be isolated.

The Minister said he is awaiting upcoming proposals before announcing his plans, but that he could be advised to make broad changes to both regulations and oversight, saying that loopholes need to be closed in response to a further question from Mr Anderson, who noted regulators received scathing criticism – with the planning office found to have played a pivotal role in authorising developments used for illegal disposal.

Sinn Féin asked how much it will cost to fully clear and decontaminate the Mubouy site, with the Minister saying the report’s estimates run into hundreds of millions of pounds, but that it is hoped that is not the case, with clean-up decisions set to depend on current investigations. The SDLP asked what discussions have taken place about tackling such crimes on an all-island basis. Mr Durkan said the matter was raised at the last North/South Ministerial Council meeting and that co-operation is vital due to the cross-jurisdictional nature of such problems. The UUP asked if anyone has been charged or convicted in relation to the offences, with the Minister saying investigations are ongoing and he is unable to comment.

Paisley: What Went Wrong for the DUP’s PR Machine

The DUP PR machine, normally so formidable stumbled in its handling of the Paisley interview this week, at least partially because of the strange tactics of its opposite numbers at the BBC.

One of the first principles of crisis communication is to limit coverage of bad news to a single news schedule, to make it into what the professionals call a “one day wonder”.

Obviously the bigger the story, the harder this is to achieve but key to success is that it should be seen as a single issue, over and done with once the broadcast and any response have been completed with no loose ends for reporters to follow up on and prolong the embarrassment. The DUP failed to achieve this.

To those not personally involved in the DUP leadership the matter at stake was straightforward enough. Every leader gets to a point where he (or she) has  passed his sell by date, no longer commands the full support of the party and is seen as a liability rather than a strength.

This is one of the basic laws of politics. Yet those in office are rarely if ever eased willingly from power, after all that runs counter to the political mindset. The only time I can recall it happening in UK politics was when Harold Wilson stepped down from the Premiership in 1976 – however this is likely to be because he was by then suffering from the early stage of Alzheimer’s disease which sadly blighted his later years.

In such circumstances the transfer of power needs to be handled with respect and dignity, and from all outside appearances this is exactly what happened in the case of Mr Paisley. However losing power in such a manner is hurtful to those affected and can cause great bitterness for many years – witness Margaret Thatcher who, after initially responding with dignity to her removal from office, later attacked those who had conspired against her.

So without in any way taking away from the brilliance of Eamonn Mallie’s scoop it is hardly surprising that Lord Bannside feels the way he does about his loss of office. And if he was, as most believe “encouraged” to depart, well that’s just politics, which, after all, is about winning and has no room for undue sentimentality. No political party is one big happy family, they are normally characterised by feuds and factions, simmering away out of public sight.

Which brings us back to the programme. Traditionally scoops, big exclusive stories are guarded jealously by broadcasters and publishers. When I worked on Sunday newspapers really big stories were sometimes kept out of the first editions so rival news organisations could not get hold of them and run “spoilers”. You wanted people to buy your paper to read the story.

In recent years, the BBC has devoted a lot of resource to running “tasters” of its investigative documentaries, putting out news releases and broadcasting stories about them in advance.

This is presumably to grow interest and audience. But it can also have the opposite effect. I have often, for example seen a piece on the news about a Panorama Show and thought to myself, thanks very much for summarising that for me, now I don’t need to watch it! I’m sure many others feel the same.

In the case of the Paisley interview all the key revelations were released by the BBC before the show was aired. Indeed we were treated to the surreal experience of Stephen Nolan devoting an hour of his show on Monday morning to reaction to a programme that had not been aired. Eamonn Mallie was interviewed as were Alex Kane and Martina Purdy who were debating the long term consequences of the programme on the DUP.

No surprise then when the DUP also decided to react in advance, with detailed statements from the main protagonists, reacting to allegations the public had not seen.

I have no idea whatsoever whether the BBC’s PR machine helped to push up the ratings for the show, or simply gave people reasons not to watch it. What is bizarre, however, is the syndrome whereby broadcasters are so anxious to be first with revelations that they broadcast them before they are even made!

And so it was this frenzied pre-reporting that presumably led to the DUP being compelled to issue statements before the show.

What does seem odd, however, is that further statements were then issued after the broadcast which guaranteed more coverage on the following day, and another slot on the dreaded Nolan.

It has not been a great week for the party.

However when the dust settles we have all learned one thing. Who can say what Paisley’s “legacy” will be? Who will ever agree upon it? A brilliant orator with huge charisma, a hard working constituency politician and also one of the most divisive figures in recent politics, reviled by some, worshipped by others, seen by some as a traitor to his cause, by others, especially after this week as a victim who was betrayed. A man who held up progress for decades, a man who spoke for a community. He will remain a paradox. However we now know that in his resentment of those he regards as having forced him from office he is just the same as any normal politician, most of whose careers end in decline.

And as for his successors, they’ve just done what everyone else in politics does, always has, always will because that is how politics works.





Is this the end of local papers?

Legs stolenThis week the BBC has been involved in a major row with the coalition government over its coverage of local news.

At the tail end of last year Home Secretary Theresa May called on the BBC to cut back on its local news reporting. She claimed that because the Beeb was using licence fees in order to subsidise online news reporting “This makes it enormously difficult for local newspapers to compete … It is destroying local newspapers and it could eventually happen to national newspapers as well.”

May said she wanted the BBC to change of its own accord, rather than facing a “ban” on certain activities or the prospect of legislation.

This week James Harding, the BBC’s head of news hit back. He said that the BBC had nothing to do with the demise of local newspapers, which he blamed on Facebook, Google and ebay.

So what are the facts?

Newspapers have a simple business model. Their income comes from two streams: the money you pay for the paper and advertising. The more people buy a paper the more it charges for advertising.

Regional newspapers used to be hugely profitable and successful. However for decades they have been under assault for their advertising revenues, first from print rivals that stripped away property and car and recruitment ads, and latterly by online rivals that have destroyed their classified advertising base.

The papers have responded by making massive cuts. The Press Gazette has reported that 242 local papers shut between 2005 and 2012. Thousands have been made redundant. It has been calculated that a staggering 40 per cent of jobs in the UK regional press have gone in the course of five years.

At the same time circulations are falling across the board. Journalists have been badly affected by the cuts. This has meant smaller newsrooms offering less original stories, and this compounded by the growth of online news and the rise of the “citizen journalist” means that they are in deep crisis.

The reality is that they are trapped. News is as popular as it ever was. The trouble is that we don’t have to pay for it online, and advertising revenues for newspaper sites do not go near replacing lost revenues elsewhere.

Sadly it is a broken model and radical new ideas are required to save the regional newspaper industry. The trouble is nobody has come up with anything viable as yet.

Which brings us to the BBC. Because we pay for that service it will never need to charge for local news online or generate advertising and so, the argument goes, is driving papers out of business because they can’t compete with a publicly-funded rival – and crushing the once-vibrant local press hardly comes under the remit of “public service broadcasting”.

That sounds fair enough until you remember that the demise of newspapers is not confined to the UK. In the USA, where incidentally the last evening newspaper closed decades ago, 42,000 jobs have been lost in the industry since 2007.

In that context it seems absurd to be attempting to curb BBC reporting which is both fair and authoritative, but does not have the depth of coverage a local newspaper can provide.

And in any event there is no evidence to suggest that pay walls are an answer to the problem. They have been tried elsewhere with very mixed results, We all know from our own experiences of the internet that the harder you make it for people to visit a site the less likely they are to look at it.

The reality is that there is no quick fix. It is going to be a long hard road back for local newspapers, and only those prepared to embrace radical change will survive. They have two vital assets: they are trusted, and they have deep roots in the communities they serve. Herein lies the key to future success.

The answer has to be in a complete reversal of mindset. Bloggers, lifestyle sites and the like should be partnered with, not treated as rivals. My vision of a successful local newspaper is the creation of a local hub site powered by the paper, which helps to generate a lot of site visits. It will publish a wide range of additional content from bloggers and the like which in turn will help to make the site more vibrant, active and truly representative of the community. In the USA several newspapers have started on this journey and results are encouraging.

For far too long local newspapers have been battling against the inevitable like so many King Canutes, instead of fully embracing the digital age.

Trying to ban the BBC from covering local events is the latest example of this. It would achieve nothing, further weakening the media, and serve only to accelerate their own decline.


Ulster Unionists and the Haass “mess”


Was the Ulster Unionist Party’s rejection of the Haass talks a political masterstroke or a failure of leadership?

How will the DUP and more importantly the electorate respond? And what are the implications for the peace process, which let’s remember is still work in progress here.

Let’s start with the statement issued by the party this week.

“The Ulster Unionist Party seeks a positive resolution to the issues of flags, parading and dealing with the past.

Consequently, this Executive believes the Haass document is not viable and therefore unacceptable.

This Executive further calls on OFMdFM to sort out the mess resulting from the process they initiated; The Ulster Unionist Party will examine any measures brought forward by the First Minister and deputy First Minister and report again to the Executive at its next scheduled meeting in February.”

First of all it is very terse. The party says it wants to resolve the issues but does not spell out why the Haass document, previously described by its leader as 90% there, is deemed not viable. This in itself is interesting, because you would normally expect that if a party deemed such a long-running political process to be a “mess” that it would spell out precisely what it considered to be its failings.

Then it places the onus on Sinn Fein and the DUP to come up with proposals to make progress which it will review in February. So despite the assertion that the document is not viable the party is still up for considering further proposals.

It is interesting here to note that the party says it wants the DUP and Sinn Fein to develop proposals. One of the main complaints of other parties to date about governance in Northern Ireland has been that the DUP and Sinn Fein have excluded them from policy-making, yet here we have the UUP holding back and asking precisely for that.

So what’s really going on?

Opinion polls consistently show an alarming disenchantment with the political process in Northern Ireland. There’s a sense that we are allowing ourselves to be trapped in the past and need stronger leadership to make progress.

Yet that has not been the UUP’s experience. The unpopularity of O’Neillism with many core voters led to the rise of the DUP, and its supremacy as the major unionist party came about through its opposition to David Trimble’s work which culminated in the Good Friday Agreement.

The lessons of history for the Ulster Unionists appear to suggest that compromise and accommodation have not had fruitful results. That’s the bald fact of it. The party will also be buoyed by its experience of opposing the planned peace and reconciliation centre at the Maze.

So you can see that from a practical, political perspective, that the tactic of putting the onus on the DUP to come up with a solution to these most divisive issues is a sound one.

However, this not 1970 or 1998. Today there are three important factors at play.

First the DUP is now without question the dominant political force. It achieved this through oppositional politics coupled with discipline, superior organisation and then, when it felt the time was right, a huge amount of work on the ground to bring its grassroots with it into governance.  It is a formidable political machine, dangerous to underestimate. It is unlikely to be blind-sided by the UUP on this, it had a senior Orangeman on its negotiating team and is most unlikely to try to sell anything which it knows will be unpalatable to its core supporters.

Second there has been the strident emergence of disaffected loyalists who feel disengaged from the mainstream and have asserted themselves through street and flag protests. Many traditionally don’t vote but there has been a concerted push to increase voter registrations amongst this community which is likely to be a factor in the next election. But which existing party is most likely to appeal to them? The TUV, which asserts oppositional unionism? The PUP with its loyalist roots? An engaged DUP, the most powerful voice? Or the UUP with its reformist and “Big House” past?

Third there is the emergence of a new generation of people who want to turn away from sectarian politics and are disillusioned with the traditional parties. This trend is nibbling away at the UUP, Alliance actually gained support post flag protests, and NI21 is a new, emerging threat.  Analysis of voter preference at the last Assembly elections showed that the UUP’s centre right policy agenda was actually the most popular with voters, yet this did not translate into votes. It is even less likely to do so in May, when we vote in European and Council elections.

Politicians rely on votes. Voters demand “leadership” and most of us want outstanding issues to be resolved. Yet the experience of the Ulster Unionist has been that it has been brought to its knees by attempts to provide “leadership” in the past.

That’s because when it comes to the privacy of the polling booth voters tend to opt for the strongest voice of their “community” rather than for compromise, accomodation and change.

Until that changes, nothing will change. But if you don’t like that, don’t blame the politicians. If you really want to point the finger, look in the mirror.







The Truth About Flags

The 17th Century Scottish  Union flag
The 17th Century Scottish Union flag

What sort of a festive season was that for Richard Haass. Who would be a diplomat? His head must be spinning. He’s back in the States now and he’ll not be coming back.

So just to cheer him up a little here are a few facts that none of the delegates from our political parties would have told him when they failed to come to an agreement about flags.

Let’s start with the Union Flag (or Jack) which has not always been a great source of national pride. It was invented by James VI of Scotland when Elizabeth I died and he found himself ruler of England as well. The two nations had a history of conflict which he was determined to end forever. So three years after he came to the throne he issued a Royal Proclamation designed to bring the nations permanently together through the creation of a magnificent new flag.

Except that he didn’t create a new one, instead he combined the two existing ones, the Cross of St George and the St Andrew’s saltire in what he considered to be a masterstroke.

The result was not what he hoped for. The English didn’t like it one bit because the white background to their flag disappeared. The Scots liked it even less because the red cross was laid over the white. And let’s not even mention the Welsh! They didn’t get a look in because Wales was a principality and not technically a kingdom, despite the previous monarch being a Tudor, and thus part of a proud Welsh family.

The Scots expressed their displeasure by creating their own version of the flag by placing the saltire on top of the cross. In 1649 the English abolished the Union Flag outright when Parliament won the Civil War – the king was executed, his flag banned and the St George cross reinstated.  It wasn’t until 1660 that the Union Flag was re-established, and the errant Scots version disappeared a few years later.

The current flag was introduced by the very first article of the Act of Union between Britain and Ireland which came about when the Irish parliament voted itself out of existence – and the Union flag was extended to include the “Cross of St Patrick”, which confused many Irish people.

This was because the Cross of St Patrick wasn’t the Irish flag. Traditionally the Irish heraldic symbol was a harp on a blue background, which is still the standard of the Irish president. Irish rebels changed the blue to green and that was the flag adopted in the 1798 rebellion.

The Cross of St Patrick which is a red saltire on a white background was actually the emblem of a chivalric order, the Order of St Patrick, which, ironically had been specially created 18 years earlier to celebrate the independence of the Irish parliament. The fact that in heraldry crosses are emblems of martyrdom and St Patrick wasn’t a martyr added to the mystery of incorporating a flag that didn’t exist into the Union flag.

Republicans like to portray the Irish Tricolour as a symbol of peace and unity.

It made its first appearance in 1848 when it was flourished at a Young Ireland meeting in Waterford by the revolutionary Thomas Meagher who famously said he regarded “the sword as a sacred weapon”.  Meagher was later deported to Australia before resurfacing in the USA, where he played a prominent role leading the Irish Brigades in the American Civil War.

The green flag continued to be the flag used by those wanting an independent Ireland right up until WWI when it was used by the British Army in recruitment campaigns. The Tricolour was revived by the leaders of the 1916 rising who changed the order of the colours.

It was strongly associated with Sinn Fein and there were misgivings about whether it should be the official national flag, a decision which was finally ratified in 1937.

When you look back at history nothing is ever quite how it seems. And flags and other symbols take on different meaning to different people at different times in history. What the flag means today is not necessarily what it will mean in 50 or 100 years time. The Union Flag was once hugely unpopular, and in Ireland many people used to feel uncomfortable about the Tricolour.

In Northern Ireland things will change over time, but you could not expect that to happen over the Christmas holidays. When people feel more secure and less threatened by others they will feel more relaxed about flags, which is why we should move on and conclude agreement on everything else before we end up incapable of making any progress at all because of this most potent and powerful symbol of our cultural history and identity.




Stormont on Friday: Fuel Poverty Punishing Pensioners and Prisoners Training for Freedom

A select review of Northern Ireland’s political discourse from the past seven days

We spend all week with an eye on Stormont, writing reports and helping clients get their ideas off the ground, while getting to know the many to-ings and fro-ings within the House on the Hill; certain issues get a good showing in the media, others not at all, while the coverage of some focuses only on limited aspects of the debate. Here we provide summary bulletins on some of the latest party arguments and positions.

Cold comfort for older people? During question time, the DUP’s Pam Brown asked the Minister for Social Development for his assessment of fuel poverty for those aged 60+. Mr McCausland revealed that fuel poverty affects 295,000 homes in NI – 42% of the total – of which 135,710 have a householder older than 60. He said over half of all householders aged between 60 and 74 is in fuel poverty, with this figure rising to 60% for those who are 75+, adding that it is “quite clear” older people suffer disproportionately.

After hearing that the main DSD initiatives to alleviate fuel poverty are the ongoing warm homes scheme and boiler replacement scheme, Sinn Fein’s Mickey Brady noted that every week a “large sum” of pension credit is left unclaimed in NI, and asked how the Minister was addressing the issue. Mr McCausland said income is one of only three factors affecting fuel poverty, and that increasing benefits uptake has been a priority for the department in the past two years, with targeted interventions – which he said were continuing, aimed at older people – in place.

Danny Kinahan of the UUP noted that fuel poverty rates have only fallen by 2% in recent years – from 44% to 42% – and asked if this was an indication of DSD failure in tackling the problem. The Minister said this was not the case, and noted that there are various other departments who have responsibilities in this area.


Is rehabilitation working? The Alliance Party tabled a question for the Minster of Justice asking him to outline plans to increase employment opportunities for prisoners through access to training and experience whilst in custody. Mr Ford said putting offenders at the centre of the prison system is crucial to reform, aiding community reintegration and making society safer as a result – with education, training and employment one of the chief pillars committed to by NIPS.

The Minister said there will be a “modernised learning and skills service” with work well under way on a revised curriculum and delivery model during 2014. He identified Mugshots – a social enterprise putting designs on items such as T-shirts and cups – as one scheme already providing experience, while other initiatives are also up and running.

Lord Morrow of the DUP said his concern is “always with the victims of violence”, and asked what message such schemes send to them. Mr Ford said he agreed that victims’ needs are paramount, as illustrated by the victims and witnesses’ strategy, but said there is an obligation to offer rehabilitation for offenders, before agreeing with a Sinn Fein question that a lack of purposeful activity means this process is fundamentally undermined. The SDLP asked what changes had been made in respect of provision at Hydebank Wood, with the Minister saying he hopes to outsource education and skills provision formally in the “near future”.

The NI Assembly is in recess until January 6, with Stormont on Friday back later that week. Have a good Christmas everyone!

Want in-depth monitoring of Northern Ireland politics? Just get in touch with Ryan –

Comic Relief: Not So Funny Now

All those good people who dutifully make fools out of themselves to raise money for good causes must be feeling a lot more foolish just now. Comic Relief has swapped its red nose for a red face after the Panorama expose that was aired on Tuesday night.
The charity may well be helping to avert disaster in other parts of the globe, but it has failed to effectively manage its reputation, the question now is just how bad the damage will be and whether the public will be quite so generous next time around.
Sometimes PR disasters are the result of innocent blunders, sometimes the result of bad behaviour, sometimes the organisation has done no wrong but just ends up looking bad.
Comic Relief at first claimed it had done nothing wrong before performing a U turn a few hours before the documentary was broadcast.
What Panorama revealed was that Comic Relief has been sitting on cash reserves of around £100 million which it invests in the Stock Market in order to make profits which allow it to pay its £17 million running costs and therefore keep its pledge to ensure that for every pound donated a pound is spent on a good cause.
This sounds like a really good ruse – except for two things. The first is that when we give on impulse to charity we tend to have an expectation that our money will be put to use immediately rather than invested in shares for a few years. Secondly it transpires that several million pounds have been in tobacco, arms and alcohol companies. This is great news in terms of getting a good return on investment, not so good when you consider the moral and ethical implications for a charity which is trying to make an impact in the Third World, so often scarred by conflict and health problems.
So how did Comic Relief respond and what will the damage be?
Being really cynical the timing has been as good as it could be for the Comic Relief team. The documentary was broadcast after this year’s appeal was complete, after being delayed for legal and other checks. Secondly it was shown on the night of Nelson Mandela’s Memorial Service two hours later than its normal slot. Yet despite the fact it was buried down the news schedule on Tuesday the expose was the most read piece on the BBC news site, with way more views than the Mandela story, so it has certainly been noticed.
And when the charity asked for celebrities to take to social media to support the cause, the request had the opposite effect. For example comedian Frankie Boyle tweeted to his 1.5 million followers: “Those fairy cakes your kids baked for Comic Relief bought [Ugandan warlord] Joseph Kony a rocket launcher”.
The story first began to surface in the Spring and so comic Relief has had plenty of time to respond. It gave a clear and reasonable explanation for holding on to cash: to give time for other organisations to bid for funds and also monies were held back in order to ensure donations were well spent. But on the much more damaging issue of investing in arms and tobacco it blundered badly.
The reputational damage looming was obvious. It should immediately have stopped investing in the controversial businesses and announced the adoption of an ethical investment policy.
It deployed a law firm which tried to get the programme stopped stating it would “damage vulnerable people in the UK and around the world”. It stated that it had a duty to ensure it got the maximum return on its investment and then refused to say whether it was continuing to buy and sell shares in tobacco and arms.
This response did not go down at all well and so, at lunchtime on Tuesday chief executive Kevin Cahill announced the inevitable U Turn in a last ditch attempt to close the issue off.
Whether or not he is successful remains to be seen. There’s a long time before Comic Relief will be on the airwaves again, if indeed the BBC decides to retain it.
But there are lessons here for the voluntary sector. Many charities have become just like businesses, the only difference being that profits generated do not get paid out to shareholders but are invested back in the cause.
There is nothing wrong with that and it helps to ensure that they are, or become self-sustaining. However there is an important difference. Businesses exist in order to make a profit, charities exist in order to make a difference to others. We support them, volunteer for them and donate to them because we believe in what they do.
They in turn need to be careful. The public does not like charities paying their people excess wages. Mr Cahill gets £131,000 a year, which frankly is towards the upper limit of what the public deem acceptable five staff get £80,000 plus, a lot more than we pay our MPs.
And in the drive to make a difference across the globe we expect the highest ethical standards, not those of Gordon Gecko and the financial markets.

Stormont on Friday: Normal Lives and Special Needs and Getting to Work

A select review of Northern Ireland’s political discourse from the past seven days

We spend all week with an eye on Stormont, writing reports and helping clients get their ideas off the ground, while getting to know the many to-ings and fro-ings within the House on the Hill; certain issues get a good showing in the media, others not at all, while the coverage of some focuses only on limited aspects of the debate. Here we provide summary bulletins on some of the latest party arguments and positions.


Special needs and normal lives? Gordon Dunne brought a DUP motion calling for greater support for people with learning disabilities, offering choice, independence and a full life. He said challenges were not limited to employment and, while many families provide support for a loved one, in other cases a support network does not exist and more in general should be done to help people who can play a valuable role in society. The SDLP supported the motion, but added an amendment explicitly calling for “necessary” finance to be made available so that politicians and related agencies can work with other sectors to buttress “social inclusion, citizenship, empowerment, working together and individual support.”

Sinn Fein agreed with the motion and the sentiment that assistance cannot be limited to just providing day opportunities – saying the ultimate goal is full social inclusion, and calling for a two-pronged approach empowering those with learning disabilities on the one hand, and helping communities become more active in integration and inclusion on the other.

The UUP said they were also in agreement, but noted there is no one-sized solution, and that the individuals involved were just that, so flexible provision needs to be put in place. Kieran McCarthy of Alliance said he has a daughter with special needs, so is personally aware of the importance of support as discussed, saying such issues “have always been the Cinderella of the health service”, and said a drive towards meaningful support towards fulfilling lives had his full support.

Health Minister Edwin Poots said providing choice to those with learning disabilities was paramount, and that they should have “access to eduction, employment, personal relationships, leisure, community and sports opportunities with individual support available where required.” He said there would be consultation on a regional model for day opportunities, and that he and other relevant Departments would work with those outside Stormont to begin moving measures forward. Motion passed as amended.


Reactivating the NI economy? Dr Farry the Employment Minister made a statement also on behalf of DETI, announcing a new strategy to tackle economic inactivity and saying the measures would be aimed primarily at two groups: the long-term sick and/or disabled, and those with family commitments – saying high inactivity in these areas was an age-old structural problem with the NI economy.

The UUP noted that DEL already has a slew of employment strategies already in place, with 430 recommendations or actions current, and asked how any new measures would help, with Dr Farry saying existing measured tend to focus on unemployment rather than economic inactivity. The DUP noted the intention for DEL to work alongside health professionals, asking if this amounted to a review of the ongoing condition management programme. The Minister said the new scheme will be more general, and that more cooperation with health officials is desired, perhaps even leading to an integrated service.

Sinn Fein asked what safeguards were in place to prevent problems similar to those leaving vulnerable people in the lurch following the “discredited” work capability assessments. Dr Farry said the announcement was unrelated to welfare reform, and was about “enabling people” not forcing them into work, but acknowledged it exists within the same sphere as recent benefits changes. The SDLP asked if provision would be targeted at areas of high inactivity, and was told the changes were very likely to move forward on a local basis, and such measures were possible. Alliance noted the Minister’s recent work with learning disability groups, and asked if there would be liaison with that sector and others. Dr Farry said the established overseeing task force would work with various stakeholders to map out current services, before setting up local competitive pilot projects, adding that there would be a “call for proposals”.


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